The first poem is about the silence that must be found before the first word can be heard. It is also about all the apparent dead ends and failures that, in their way, are as integral to the journey as the destination.
Epiphany Poem – George Mackay Brown
The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.
The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.
The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.
The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.
The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.
The Wise Men – GK Chesterton
Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.
Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.
We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.
The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.
Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.
The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.
The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.
The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.
Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.
Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.
And so to the third poem.
I have always imagined the scene this way: three serene and noble kings gliding through a desert atop their camels as depicted on many a Christmas card. But what of the sweat and cursing, the disappointment, the bitter cold, the caution necessary for exploration in times of tribal suspicion and scarce provision, the threat of disease on the road, attackers, injury and accident, the petty arguments and perhaps above all, the undermining mundane ordinariness of it all in comparison to the ecstasy and expectancy of a dream?
As I read the poem it becomes clear that, this is the journey. It has always been the journey.
The journey is both everything and one thing. It is just as much the grit, the aching bones, the blistered feet as it is the rapturous illumination which though life altering can also, at times be distant and cold as starlight.
The journey of the Magi, is tethered by faith to the star. The star is the guide. Without the star there would be only dark, aimless wandering.
Perhaps it’s the rigours of the journey make us small and humble enough to truly behold the mystery of creation without seeking to solve it like a mathematical equation or reduce it to the logical conclusion of a philosophical riddle. The journey leads us from the heady intentions of our minds into the frustrating limitations of our bodies. It writes its map within us as we walk.
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.” – Antonio Machado
By the end of the poem the three Magi are changed men. As a result, they suddenly find themselves strangers in the world, unable to fully return to their old homeland, unable to fully reconcile the light of heaven with the grit of earth. After seeking the sacred in prayer and meditation it can be hard to return back to normal cares and concerns. There is a sense of exile, of not fully belonging.
And so we come to the second death mentioned in the poem. Death being already associated with birth in the stanza we understand this second death to perhaps allude to another birth.
Here is where reconciliation happens. Earth and her perennial dramas and cyclic motions becoming tethered to an eternal order by an umbilicus of faith that offers insight beyond sight. The poet leaves us on the threshold of this promised land alongside the Magi.
The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, 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.
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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might 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.