If the magi were drawn by a power which they did not understand, what meaning could the power have for them? Further, why did the critics understand the meaning of this power so well that they thought the magi, who did not understand it, should not have followed it?
Since some recent posts have involved "The Journey of the Magi,"
I thought it might be interesting to look at some correspondence TSE had about
the poem with a friend, Alan Porter. TSE had recently published the poem (1927)
when these letters were written.
In the Letters of T.S. Eliot (vol 3), Porter's letter appears as a footnote.
Since Porter's letter was written first, I'm posting it first, followed by
In TSE's reply, he gives us a tidbit of what he meant ("I meant that the
Magi were drawn by a power which they did not understand"), although Peter
will undoubtedly send in a post to tell me that TSE was only describing a mood
and not revealing any of his intention regarding meaning.
-- Tom --
From the footnote listed on page 860-861 of Letters, vol 3:
(1)-Alan Porter's letter of 25 Nov. was largely devoted to his reading of TSE's
poem Journey of the Magi; beginning from this second paragraph:
'I thought it was rather awkward and
cowardly to leave you without saying how I had criticized "The Journey of
the Magi". I took it as a very important poem, and tried to exhibit _why_,
from the substance of what you wrote - not from technique or vividness or lyric
quality at all. That is, as if you were _doing_ something, as if the poem were
'And I said, "Alas for this
nostalgia", very much as Richards seems to have said, "Hurrah for
this nostalgia". Here is a myth, and you are remaking it, just as a Greek
poet remade the myths he told. And what falls out of the story, what is put
into it, how is it changed?
'There is no star, there are no gifts,
there is actually no birth and no worship (or perhaps there was a birth, yes,
certainly there was one; but not an overwhelming and ever remarkable birth).
'How would I like to see the myth? Or
rather, how do 1 see it? As in fact the Three Magi were Zoroaster and
Pythagoras and Buddha. As if the mysteries of the ancient world were something
of supreme dignity and truth. As if this were the order of Melchizedec;
suffering the shock of becoming Christian and having its meaning fulfilled, and
transcended in fulfillment.
'Into Christianity came Plato and
Aristotle, Trismegistus, Eleusis, the Vedas ... It was something to take the
breath away, and make them humble; but are we to say they had nothing to bring,
and they were left rootless after it had happened. I see it as if it were
mankind at its firmest and greatest that was here confessing its insufficiency,
and receiving its justification.
'I think you saw it as if the world
were at a dead end; as if it were superseded rather than transcended; as if
these were three more Jews, or rich young men.
'And if I am to take the poem as an
attitude to life, I believe it would go like this - "The world certainly
happens, and has to be accepted: but there is no certain perfection. It comes
difficultly to us, and even trivially. I don't know whether there is an
absolute meaning to it. I am forced to certain conclusions. Is there any
guarantee that they are Right? And suppose they are right: are they very
'It was one of the Cairnses, I think,
who used to get indignant at the phrase "too good to be true",
holding that we should rather say "not good enough to be true". This
looks to me like a good, buoyant, and creative feeling.
'Will you acquit me of impertinence in
writing this? If I said "blasphemous", I must apologise; it was a
swear word. Some-one asked me, "But do you think all that has anything to
do with it as a _poem_"; and that is a point of view which is beyond me to
Here is TSE's response to the Porter letter:
To Alan Porter
13 December 1927 [London]
I am sorry that I did not get your
letter in time to accept your invitation, and since I have been back I have
been too busy with the question of the reorganisation of the Criterion to write
to you. I shall be very busy from now until just before Christmas when I must
go abroad again. Perhaps you will ask me again next year.
Thank you for expressing yourself so
fully about my Christmas poem.(1) I
value all that you say in praise of it, but I must say quite ingenuously that
your interpretation of it gave me rather a shock. No doubt that is partly
because we start with quite different fantasies of what such an occurrence
would have been like. But as the whole story of the Magi is not, I believe, an
essential matter of Christian doctrine, I felt a certain liberty to treat it
according to my own fantasy of realism. I did not intend to put forward, and
still do not believe that I did put forward, any view which would either
conflict with Christian doctrine or any imagination which would tend to weaken
belief. The notion that the three Magi were the three religious leaders whom
you mention does not appeal to me because what little I know of their religions
makes me unable to accept the imaginative possibility of such a tribute. I
certainly do not accept the interpretation, interesting as it is, which you put
on my verses in the third paragraph of your letter. If I may say so, I think
that this interpretation is due rather to a reading of my previous verses than
to this. I meant that the Magi were drawn by a power which they did not
understand, and I used them as types of a kind of person who may be found at
almost any period of history. I meant them to be pathetic as Dante's Virgil is pathetic.
When you speak of the Cairnses, do you
mean the Cairds? I know the Cairnses only as a breed of terriers.
I certainly acquit you of everything if
you will acquit me; but if the poem continues to make the impression on you
that it did - then there is no possibility of acquitting it.
[T. S. Eliot]