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The Magi

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 25

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 4: Epiphany

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A 1938 portrait of T. S. Lewis, by Wyndham Lewis

A 1938 portrait of T. S. Lewis, by Wyndham Lewis

2:1  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 

2:2  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

2:3  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

2:4  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

2:5  And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

2:6  And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

2:7  Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

2:8  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

2:9  When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

2:10  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

2:11  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

2:12  And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

The Gospel According to Matthew, King James Version

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The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot

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A journey of the spirit

Portrait by Paul Van Somer of James VI, King of Scots; James I, King of England; 1603-1613

Portrait by Paul Van Somer of James VI, King of Scots; James I, King of England; 1603-1613

Bible scholars have long debated the identity of the magi (pronounced MAY-jee or MAY-jye; singular is magus, pronounced MAY-guss). Were they Persians from the ancient priestly caste of Zoroastrianism? Were they kings or exiled Jews? Were there, in fact, three such visitors? Or are they simply part of the “mythology” surrounding the birth of Jesus?

What matters, for the purpose of our present discussion, is that, biblically, the magi represent the acknowledgement by non-Jews of Jesus as not merely a king but a divine king, one to be worshiped.

The date of their arrival is, by tradition, held to be January 6 — the last of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” This date — and the liturgical season that follows it, leading up to the Lenten Season — is called Epiphany (Greek for “to manifest” or “to show). In a nonreligious context, we might use the word epiphany to describe a sudden insight or revelation.

The best poetry is language distilled, every word essential, anything superfluous filtered out and discarded. In your study of “the Journey of the Magi,” be assured that there is nothing accidental in, say, the choice of the word satisfactory to describe the arrival, or in the repetitiveness in

And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

What was Eliot’s “epiphany”?

I suppose that you could make it your life’s work to study this poem and still not explain every nuance. It’s important to know that Eliot was baptized into the Church of England and became a British citizen (he was born in St. Louis) in 1927, the year this poem was published. What seems obvious (and is therefore suspect) is that the poet is alluding to his spiritual journey from agnosticism to Christianity, perhaps colored by his embracing England as his home. 

Assignment 25.1

Write a poem in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) of no more than thirty lines about a metaphorical journey toward a life-changing realization — an “epiphany” — of your own. Identify the rhetorical devices used in your poem. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.


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