Twelfth Night: The Coming of the Wise Men

The Journey Of The Magi by TS Eliot

Journey of the Magi


  '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 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.

commentary: Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas season, and is also known as the Epiphany, a church feast celebrating the arrival  of the Kings/Magi/Wise Men as visitors to the Christ child. I wrote about the feast in literature and in life in the Guardian in 2015 and in researching it found that no-one is quite clear whether the 5th or 6th of January is twelfth night… a nice mystery and uncertainty.

This is one of TS Eliot’s most popular poems, and with good reason.

Picture is of a 13th century manuscript from the Walters Museum in Baltimore.


  1. It is a lovely poem, Moira, and I'm glad you spotlighted it today. What I love about it is it's perspective and point of view. And that date thing is interesting. I've always heard 6 January, but that's just what I've heard.

    1. Thanks Margot! I think we can all choose our own Twelfth Night. So glad you like this poem too.

  2. Moira: We live an era where our major travel complaints are delays at airports and the occasional issue with hotel rooms. The poem powerfully reminded me how dark and difficult and dangerous travel was in Biblical times.

    1. Good point! We don't have much to complain about really. I do love the way this poem makes the difficulties of the journey real...

  3. This is a lovely poem. I have always likes the story of the Wise Men.

    1. Me too, it's one of my favourite parts of Christmas.


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