Monday, 6 January 2020

The Journey of the Magi ~ two poems for Epiphany

'The Journey of the Magi', Stefano di Giovanni, 1434. Wiki Commons

Today is Epiphany, a feast which celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men, Magi, or Kings, to the Christ child, having followed the Star of Bethlehem to find him. There have been many artistic responses to this event and so, to begin today's sharings, and my posts for Epiphanytide, here are two poems; the first from Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, and the second from one of the most influential poets of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot.

This poem by George MacKay Brown has become a new favourite; not only does it imagine Epiphany as a season, rather than only one day, but it reimagines the Magi in a landscape that is familiar to me. As I have written before, these events are unfolding in all places, and the time is always now. As Greek philosoper Strabo of Amasia said, "(The) Magi keep the fire ever burning. And there, entering daily, they make their incantations..."
This is kairos, sacred time, and this is sacred space

A Calendar of Kings by George Mackay Brown

They endured a season
Of ice and silver swans.

Delicately the horses
Grazed among the snowdrops.

They traded for fish, wind
Fell upon crested waters.

Along their track
Daffodils lit a thousand tapers.

They slept among dews.
A dawn lark broke their dream.

For them, at solstice
The chalice of the sun spilled over.

The star was lost.
They rode between burnished hills.

A fiddle at a fair
Compelled the feet of harvesters.

A glim on their darkling road.
The star! It was their star.

In a sea village
Children brought apples to the horses.

They lit fires
By the carved stones of the dead.

A midwinter inn.
Here they unload their treasures.

George Mackay Brown from 'Following a Lark' 1996 and 'The Collected Poems' 2005.

'The Dream of the Magi', Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, France. 12th Century. 

And here is T.S. Eliot's response to the arrival of the Magi, and, more unsettlingly, to their journey home and its aftermath. They were forever changed by what they had seen and experienced, no longer at home in what had been. We might all wish, and not wish, to be so moved. Oh come, disturbing God!

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, 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.

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 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, from 'Collected Poems, 1909-1962'.

'The Journey of the Magi', James Tissot


Strabo of Amasia quote from Ben Wood @summeroflove85 on Twitter, accessed 6th January 2020. Thank you, Ben!

George Mackay Brown poem from

T.S. Eliot poem from


  1. Thank you Jacqueline for introducing me to George Mackay Brown‘s wonderful poem. Eliot is with me constantly. A day without Eliot is incomplete.


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