In Focus: T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, the masterpiece that was dashed off in 45 minutes

Far from a celebration, the poem is a metaphor for the voyage Eliot believed the human spirit must make to experience Christ.

In 1927, the Bloomsbury publisher Faber and Gwyer (Faber & Faber from 1929) announced a new series of booklets ‘suitably decorated in colours and dressed in the gayest wrappers’, featuring Christmas-themed poems. With artwork supplied by established and rising talents, such as Paul and John Nash, Eric Ravilious, Eric Gill and Edward McKnight Kauffer, the publisher hoped they would find a place in the Christmas gift market.

Thomas Hardy, G. K. Chesterton, W. B. Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon were among those who contributed poems to the series. T. S. Eliot, who had joined Faber two years earlier as a literary editor, having left his City job in Lloyds Bank’s Colonial and Foreign Department, was to write six of what became known as The Ariel Poems. The first of these was Journey of the Magi.

The publication of the poem at Christmas 1927 came at a timely moment in Eliot’s life, after his reception into the Church of England earlier that year. Eliot later explained that the poem asked the question: ‘How fully was the Truth revealed to those who were inspired to recognise Our Lord so soon after the Nativity?’

The poem was framed around the Biblical journey of the three kings, or wise men, who came from the East to pay homage to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The power of the verse lay in the way Eliot turned it into a first-person narrative by one of the magi.

Rather than a joyous pilgrimage, he described an arduous trek through ‘the very dead of winter’. With references to ‘such a long journey’, with ‘camels galled, sore-footed’, moving through ‘cities hostile and towns unfriendly’, it became a metaphor for the voyage Eliot believed the human spirit must make to experience Christ.

The poet subsequently explained that he ‘had been thinking about the subject in church on a Sunday morning’ and that ‘when I got home I opened half a bottle of Booth’s gin, poured myself a drink and began to write. By lunchtime the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished’.

It had taken him three-quarters of an hour.

However, despite the apparent levity of this recollection, many at the time had been dismayed on hearing the news that someone they had viewed as the mouthpiece of post-war disillusion through works such as The Waste Land had secretly undergone a religious conversion.

Virginia Woolf lamented that ‘poor dear Tom Eliot’ was ‘dead to us all from this day forward’. Conrad Aiken, the American author, a friend of Eliot since their Harvard days and among the first to appreciate his poetry, also thought he had taken leave of his senses.

This frustrated Eliot. ‘Most critics appear to think that my Catholicism is merely an escape route and evasion,’ he wrote to the American writer Paul Elmer More in 1929, adding that he found it ‘rather trying to be supposed to have settled oneself in an easy chair, when one has just begun a long journey on foot’.

Eliot, born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888, had been brought up in a Unitarian family in Massachusetts, and admitted that, for many years, ‘I was without any definite religious faith’. His search for spiritual meaning had been long.

Once baptised and confirmed into the Church of England, he regarded himself as ‘associated with what is called the Catholic movement in that Church’. However, religion and spirituality was not some cosy, comforting option, but an ongoing passage that, as for the magi, brought no easy conclusion.

The opening lines of Journey, with some adjustments, were taken from a nativity sermon of 1622 by a cleric of immense piety, Lancelot Andrewes, speculating on the difficulties the magi must have experienced on their way to Bethlehem.

Andrewes, who held high ecclesiastical office in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, was admired by Eliot for his prose and his thinking. Despite the austerity of its message, Eliot’s rather more realistic evocation of the wise men’s experience, in contrast to the romanticised popular version, became a favourite for recitation at carol services.

Edward McKnight Kauffer’s Journey of the Magi illustrations

If T. S. Eliot was the voice of the modern movement in 20th-century poetry, the illustrations for Journey of the Magi were supplied by a man the poet described as doing ‘something for modern art with the public and something for the public with modern art’.

The pair worked together on several occasions. For Journey, Edward McKnight Kauffer, also American, born in Montana, who had arrived in England in 1914, supplied a Cubist design, the magi depicted by geometric shapes and, in a contemporary touch, apparently sporting bowler hats.

Kauffer is most remembered today for the striking posters he designed for the London Underground. The prominent placing these posters received did much to elevate the standing of commercial art in Britain.