To A Mouse.
On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough
             November 1785

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
    Wi' bickering brattle!          (hasty scurrying)
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,  (loath)
    Wi' murdering pattle!      (a wooden plough-scraper)  

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union'
An' justifies that ill opinion
     Which makes thee startle
At me thy poor, earth -born companion
    An' fellow mortal !

I doubtna, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave    (an ear of corn in sheaves)
    'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin' wi the lave,           (rest)
    An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!         (walls, winds)
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,       (build)
    O foggage green!                        (growth)
An' bleak December's wins enduin,
    Baith snell an' keen!             (both bitter and biting)

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary Winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,     (cosy)
    Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past     (plough-blade) 
    Out thro thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,   (stubble)
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
    But house or hald,
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
    An' cranreuch cauld!                  (hoar-frost cold)

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
THE best-laid schemes o' Mice an'Men
    Gang aft agley,                (go often wrong)
An' lea'e us nought but grief an'pain,
    For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'ee
    On prospects drear!
An'forward tho' I canna see,
    I guess an' fear!   

Like “To a Louse” (see earlier post) this poem uses the Habbie Samson metric form for a dramatic monologue arising out of Burns’ work as a small farmer. The speech is directed to the mouse with the narrator (we inderstand Burns himself) expressing genuine sympathy for the mouse’s predicament, having had her nest turned up in wintry conditions.

The use of the term “man’s dominion” in Stanza 2 is set against the Nature’s “social union”. Man’s overlordship here is seen as leading to the distressful situation for the mouse. The word “dominion” is taken from Genesis 1.26 where man is given that kind of power by God over animal -life. “Social union” implies a relationship which Burns is in favour. We have seen in songs like “Ye Bonny Banks” and ” Corn rigs and Barley Rigs” the bonding between human and the natural world.

In fact, Burns’ sympathetic feeling for the animal and its needs is an expression of that kind of social bonding, as is suggested by the phrasing “fellow-mortal”. Indeed, living close to the land in a humble cottage Burns as a small farmer would have been well aware of the dangers of poverty, hunger and homelessness, as is suggested by the “fear” the poem ends with. So in commiserating with the mouse he is expressing feelings very real to him.

The strength of this connection is specially brought out in the poem by the lines :

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste 
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here beneath the blast,
     Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter passed
    Out thro'thy cell.


Tremendous power is given, by the poet, to “Crash!”. This is reinforced by the continuing alliteration of that “c” sound in “cruel coulter”. Although the coulter is specific to the mouse’s nest the sharp blade of the plough is a potent image of violent attack. Looking at the stanza as a whole we can see that every thought would be as apposite to peasant life as it would be to that of the life of the mouse, and indeed more so. It is difficult, then, not to see that the extra power given to the crash of the coulter would be equivalent to a rich master using his dominion tyrannically by taking cruel possession of the tenant’s land. Indeed when we go throught the poem we discover the equivalence between the poor peasant and the mouse is maintained throughout.

So, although our first reaction to the poem might be that it is a pleasingly sentimental picture of animal life, its very power is, in reality, a more profound study of the ways in which animal life and tenant and peasant life may be under attack by cruel, or heedless, dominion.

The poem then shows not only the poet as gentle and sympathtic in his feeling for the mouse but passionately opposed to heartless treatment of the vulnerable.

BURNS’ SEASON: “The Rigs o’ Barley”

It was upon a Lammas night,      (harvest festival)
  When corn-rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light,
  I held awa'to Annie;
The time flew by, wi' tentless heed    (carefree)
  Till tween the late annd early,
Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed
  To see me through the barley.

Corn rigs, an' barley rigs,
  An' corn rigs are bonie:
I'll ne'er forget that happy night,
  Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

The sky was blue, the wind was still,
  The moon was shining clearly;
I set her down wi' right good will,
  Amang the rigs o' barley:
I ken't her heart was a' my ain;
  I lov'd her most sincerely;
I kissed her owre and owre again,
  Amang the rigs o'barley.


I lock'd her in my fond embrace;
  Her heart was beating rarely:
My blessings on that happy place,
  Amang the rigs o' barley!
But by the moon and stars so bright,
  That shone that hour so clearly!
She ay shall bless that happy night
  Amang the rigs o' barley. 


I hae been blythe wi' comrades dear;
  I hae been merry drinking;
I hae been joyfu' gath'rin' gear;   (making money)
  I hae been happy thinking:
But a'the pleasures a' I saw, 
  Tho' three times doubl'd fairly-
That happy night was worth them a', 
  Amang the rigs o' barley.

Corn rigs an' barley rigs,
  An' corn rigs are bonie:
I'll ne'er forget that happy night 
  Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

First printed in the Kilmarnock Edition 1786.
Tune: Corn Rigs are Bonie. 

Even for an aging puritan like myself there is something irresistible about this song!  There is the wondrous delight it gives of young love mutually shared! Also,there is that wonderful open-air quality to this poetry, with the wonderful moonlit Lammas night at harvest time, the unclouded light, the stars so bright. So the  -"lock'd in my fond embrace" does not suggest only constrictedness but rather a sense of unity between the vast airy, outer world of moon, stars, fields and the concentrated world of the lovers, where "her heart was beating rarely". The lovers, concentrated in their togetherness, are also held by the vast, living universe around them.
Of course  with my critical awareness I could also add that the fate of the young woman might well become similar to that of the despondent voice of "Ye Banks and Braes". The future might become another story. 
Yet the poem is triumphantly true to the delight of the moment and for readers, like myself that joy cannot be vanquished.

BURNS’ SEASON : “Ye Banks and Braes”

Ye banks and braes o' bonie Doon,
  How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
  And I sae weary fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart thou warbling bird, 
  That wantons thro' the flowering thorn:
Thou minds me o' departed joys,
  Departed never to return.

Aft hae I rov'd by bonie Doon
  To see the rose and woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o'its Luve,
  And fondly sae did I o' mine.-
Wi'lightsome heart I pu'd a rose, 
  Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree;
But my fause Luver staw my rose, 
  But ah! he left the thorn wi' me.

First printed in Johnson's S.M.M.1792.
(Scottish Musical Museum 1787-1803).


A beautiful, haunting sorrowful song giving expression to the voice of a loving young woman betrayed by her lover.

Burns characterised Scottish song, in general, as having “a wild happiness of thought and expression”. He also noted its quality of “rustic sprightliness”.

“Wild happiness and “rustic sprightliness” are both shown by a phrase like “Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose””. The word ” lightsome” suggests an openness to experience encouraged by the cheerfulness of Nature, in its early summer abundance of growth and bird-song. But instead of living in continuity with the Nature expressed in its blooming and chanting and wantoning birds the young woman’s openness has been betrayed by cruel abandonment. It is noteworthy that very little is said of the betrayer other than “fause lover”, but the limitedness is a strength because the analogy to what he has done is brought out with all the more power and poignancy by the use of the rose and thorn imagery creating the powerful climax:

Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose
  Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree
But my fause lover staw my rose
  But oh! he left the thorn wi'me. 


O my Luve's like a red , red rose
  That's newly sprung in June
O my Luve's like the melodie
  That's sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
  So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
  Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear
  And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
  While the sands o' life do run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
  And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
  Tho' it were ten thousand mile. 

Robert Burns Songs.


It was a rule of thumb we aspiring poets in our youth learned from doggerel Valentine verses: avoid poems that bring together roses and June and moon or (as here) “tune”. They had become sentimentalised cliche.

But Burns’ beautiful song drawing on the widespread Scots folk-song tradition is neither cliche nor sentimental. The rose has been freshly observed at its sudden magical appearance “newly sprung in June” and its wondrous emergence is equivalent to the lover expressing his feeling for his beloved. The parallel beauty of music :”the melodie That’s sweetly played in tune” further confirms the wondrous feeling.

But the querulous voice might break in: “But Burns given all his loves, to promise faithfulness “till a’ the seas gang dry”- I ask you!”.

Yet, in art, it is the truth of the work, as such, that matters. The sincerity of the poet must be there but it is the sincerity of the voice within the poem that is the guide to our assessment-not the failings of the poet elsewhere in his life. The voice of the poet is our concern as readers. That “voice” has, of course, been shaped by the tradition of Scottish song the poet is working within. Kinsley, the distinguished Burns’ editor, indicates that many phrases of the song are found in the oral tradition. In transcibing the songs for print Burns was not as a song writer seeking originality; he was seeking to be faithful to the tradition

Bur however it came about, the song is true to love. The moment of love, is made transcendent by that love. So the moment becomes eternal. Given that sense of the eternal it makes perfect sense to say that the lastingness of that moment of deeply held love will outlast all that is material so that the seas will gang dry, the rocks will melt in the sun, the sands of life will run.

The passionate heart, truly in love can say these things. After all at the heart of the Christian vision is God as Love. And the Love of God, the Creator, is infinite ; there is no moment or the eternal is the moment.

The love expressed in the poem is true to that vision. And it matters little that the actual man living from minute to minute is not necessarily ultimately faithful to his promise.

It is the art that is faithful to what is. And for the rest of us we can see from the poem what love is and what it can be-either reinforcing and endorsing what we already know or encouraging us to aspire further.


           To A Louse
On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church.

Ye ugly,creepan,blastit wonner          (wonder)
Detested,shunn'd by saunt an'sinner,    (saint)
How daur ye set your fit upon her-       (dare, foot) 
        Sae fine a Lady!                 (So)
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner  (Go) 
        On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar's haffet squattle:  (Away!hair,squat)
There ye may creep, and sprawl,and sprattle,  (scramble)
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle,        (other)
        In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle   (Where, comb)
        Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye're out o' sight,   (hold)
Below the fatt'rels, snug an'tight,       (ribbon-ends)
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
        Till ye've got on it,
The vera tapmost, tow'ring height         (very)
        O Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,  (bold)
As plump an'grey as onie grozet:          (gooseberry) 
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
        Or fell, red smeddum,             (poison)
I'd ge ye sic a hearty dose o't,
        Wad dress your droddum!           (would, backside)

I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy;     (old, flannel cap)
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,        (perhaps, small,ragged) 
        On's wylecoat;                  (flannel-vest)
But Miss's fine Lunardi, fye!
        How daur ye do 't?

O, Jenny, dinna toss your head,            (do not)
An' set your beauties a a'bread!           (abroad)
Ye little ken what cursed speed
        The blastie's makin!           (damned thing's)
Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,   (Those)
        Are notice takin!  

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
        An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us
        An' ev'n Devotion!

Robert Burns. First printed in Kilmarnock Edition in 1786.

This dramatic monologue plunges us immediately into the situation: sitting in church for worship the narrator (not necessarily using the poet’s voice) spies a flea -or louse, a blood-sucking insect- on the elegant bonnet of a lady who is putting on airs, expecting to be a spectacle, but unaware that the reason she is such is because of the louse strutting its way up her headware. The paradoxical nature of the situation leads to the moral of the poem which the poet expresses as the power “to see oursels as ithers (others) see us”.

The verse form is Habbie Samson with a six line pattern rhyming AAABAB , consisting of four stress lines (tetrameter) all keeping a similar rhyme with two distinct rhyming two foot lines (dimeter) in the fourth and sixth line providing often a powerfully succinct finish to the stanza. This metric form is typical of many of Burns poems and , as here, he uses it with rare skill for spontaneous sounding, colloquial Scots.

The easy adoption of colloquial speech allows for both our absorption in the dramatically presented situation and also for the powerful moral point of the last stanza. It has the vivid naturalness and easy flow of speech, along with wit and acumen, that continues to make Burns a very living presence.

It is a typically great Burns poem for celebrating Burns Day!


Pixabay photos horses-82801_960_720(1)

Only a man harrowing clods
  In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
  Half-asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
  From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet they will go onward the same
  Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
  Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night 
  Ere their story die. 

Written during the First World War “In Time of Breaking of Nations” is clearly meant to be reassuring. Images of rural normality are used to give a feeling of a kind of permanence and constancy of occupation that will outlast any conceivable disruption of any war. Within that rural pattern human coupling will inevitably continue and give hope.

Yet there is a sadness about the poem for those living in so-called technically advanced nations throughout the world today. For that kind of immemorial rural world Hardy celebrates has become increasingly distanced by advances in mechanised farms which have become high-speed food-producing units within the agricultural industry. Farming is a business, no longer “a way of life” So the sense of continuity offered by the poem’s “maid and her wight” tends to lack the reassurance it might give in a rooted rural world in which continuity can be assumed .

Yet perhaps there is still hope. The work and popularity of contemporary writers like James Rebanks of English Pastoral and the American Wendell Berry (Stand By Me) remind us of the value of agriculture and rural community but also of what needs to be done to salvage an inheritance that has been nearly lost. For those of us in the West that will continue for long to be an urgent priority.


Recently we looked at Christmas carols and wassailing songs and their early development from Medieval times. I drew attention to a wassailing song featured on the Waterson’s album “Frost and Fire”(first released 1965) which has a variety of songs associated with different seasons and rituals of the rural year. This album has very interesting notes written by an authority on folk song A.L. Lloyd. Lloyd explores the origins of folk song and dance.

What are the songs really about? Let’s begin with Adam and Eve. The first men plucked their food from bushes and trees, and in open country they became hunters. They learned to tame animals, to grow food plants, and turned herdsmen and agriculturalists. When plants and beasts abounded life was good. If they withdrew people starved. Fertility was vital. Its stream dwindled in winter, ran again in springtime. Gradually, people got the idea of trying to stimulate that fertility by performing stamping dances to waken the earth, leaping dances to provoke crops to grow high and bulls to breed. They tried to bind the potency of nature to themselves, dressing in green leaves or animal skins to perform their magic ceremonies, ritually eating and drinking enormously at certain seasons to take into themselves extra portions of the vital spirit dwelling in sacred animals and plants. Man was on the point of inventing the gods.

Lloyd writes as a Communist. His interest is in the life of the folk, the origins of their creativity and how the songs express the necessity to survive through their work and find communal ways of seeking to induce productivity in what they do. He rejects explanations of mystical belief:

So much is talked of myth and sun worship and such, that its necessary to recall that behind most of these calendar customs and the songs attached to them lies nothing more mysterious, nothing less realistic than the yearly round of work carried out in the fields. We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the economic seasons-winter, spring, summer and autumn . Less formally we might better have divided them, according to economic seasons-the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For its due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time.

This was written a generation or two ago and for many readers these customs of rural life will be alien to them. Christmas survives in a commercial urbanised setting, and Easter, for those who have lost an understanding of its religious significance has become simply a matter of supermarket bought Easter eggs and perhaps rolling eggs down a convenient slope; likewise Hallowe’en, which has lost connection with the dead temporarily returning. In rural areas. the celebration of the May queen might persist and there may be celebrations around mid-summer eve.

Yet perhaps, behind the economic necessities that Lloyd wants to stress, he underestimates the mysterious otherness of the world about the folk as something mysteriously created. Lloyd, himself , seeks to make sense of the religious aspect as “man on the point of inventing gods”:

The most gifted man in the community took the lead. He was the medicine man, the priest, the king, the representative of divine power. He was the one who dressed in skins or leaves, who killed the sacred animal, cut the sacred tree, led the earth shaking dances of springtime, lit the reassuring bonfires of midwinter, headed the band of heroes who marched through the village at critical seasons, singing and dancing for good luck and fine crops, and extracting their rewards for driving off the demons of sterility and want. And because the medicine-man was the representative of all that’s fecund, in early times he was killed even before his potency faded so that another vigorous representative could take his place and the continuance of fertility assured. Eventually, as manners softened, the ceremony involving this ritual slaughter, a rite compounded of anxiety, hope and remorse, changed its character. Instead of the king, a slave, a prisoner of war, an animal even was sacrificed, and finally the ceremony became a symbolic spectacle, a pantomime dance of death and resurrection that comprised the first folk play and thus the beginning of all theatre.

Lloyd explains- and of course he is thinking primarily of England and northern Europe- the effect of the arrival of Christianity thus:

When the Christian church arose, it ranged itself against the beliefs and customs of the old nature worship and prudently annexed many of the seasonal ceremonies. Thus the critical time of the winter solstice, became the season of the Nativity of the new god. The season of the great ceremonies became the time of his slaughter and resurrection. So it happens that in many of the songs of this record, pagan and Christian elements are inextricably tangled.

This is all very well. Lloyd offers indeed a brilliant summary of the processes by which man invented god. and the way in which the Christian revelation might have worked into popular acceptance by its great stories being adapted for the ceremonies of the folk. What again, I think, is lacking in Lloyd -and what is missing from Marxist understanding as I myself understand it- is a recognition of revelation. For the “new god” of Christianity is not limited to an economic rationale; he presents a revelation beyond that rationale.

Lloyd describes well the direction of mind that led to man creating gods. Man seeks fertility, potency, good fortune, magic and seeks the power from beyond that enables these. But the Christian revelation that so caught the medieval peasant mind, making so popular celebratory carols of the Nativity like “the Holly Bears a Berry”, is not to do with drawing power and vitality, it is to with awakening of wonder. The wonder comes from recognising the new truth that God has brought. For the dawning of the new truth is the revelation, not of a God who is urged into being to bring dynamic power promising potency and fertility but a God who acts on us to awaken the consciousness to a new awareness through the gift of His child.

To Lloyd “it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. He is right, I think, to point us to the origins of our western culture, going back to its folk roots. The great beauty and wonder of early folk song of medieval carols, of medieval poetry is that they enable us to remenber something of our past that we are in danger of forgetting in what seems an increasingly neurotic world : a culture in which the qualities of natural vitality and the power of revelation are united in expression. In the face of the modern world it seems increasingly our past upon which we must draw for strength of insight.


As we move from one year to another I wish all followers and occasional readers a happy New Year, secure from the worst that might assail us. I wish to thank you also for your support, as readers from around the world from a variety of cultures. I am delighted you have found in this blog something to interest and refresh you and I am encouraged by that support to keep on plying you with posts on a variety of topics to do with literature , religion and culture and how they have worked together.

I thought a short review of what I am seeking to do with this blog might be helpful. Although I have no set programme I do have a sense of thematic development in which there will be some kind of unified considerations of themes and preoccupations that I have developed over a lifetime of reading. (I happen to be reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. just now. My wife asked me if I had read it before. “Yes about sixty years ago”, I had to reply” -so you will see what I mean by “lifetime”!).

However much it may look like it from time to time, my blogging is not a sort of desultory wandering, like a butterfly lighting on one flower and then another. At the same time I do not seek to make it too organised. Suddenly, for instance, with Christmas coming I dropped Coleridge’s Rime for the time being and took on Christmas carols. This took me to folk music and folk culture and its development, a completely unexpected turn. Yet it is in line, with my interest in culture as an organic growth within a particular society and the degree to which the full range of its cultural expression hangs together.

At the heart of earlier blogs was an interest in Romanticism as a word, a concept and a manifestation and what it means, how it changed things, and what it means for us, living today. In the early days a starting point was Wuthering Heights and its relation to the Romantic novel. Then on to pre-Romanticism, Jane Austen and the picturesque. The direction was towards Romanticism as a movement, expressing the creative human spirit. It was a surprise development however-and I mean a surprise for me as this was not planned- that Coleridge, suddenly, became so central His quotation linking poetic creativity with the kind of creativity manifested by the Creator God as pictured by Genesis 1 inspired me to consider many connections between Bible stories, and great poetry. How do we read the story of God encouraging Adam to name the animals? How have great poets used their imaginations to conceive of God? The focus on the myths of Genesis widened to include Plato’s cave. The series bringing together the Tower of Babel myth, Plato’s Cave and Coleridge’s Rime was an example of this. All this is not meant as a curious byway of study. As the two posts bringing the Tower of Babel and Plato’s cave up-to date all my posts are directed in some way to thinking about where we stand now in our present world.

Large statements of the present day world are not, however, my intention. My feeling and hope is there is a place for the kind of explorations I am engaged in: seeking to bring together religious faith, poetic creativity, cultural expression- what is most living from the past- as a a way of recharging our thinking as to what we can bring our confused world from what we have inherited.


(READERS PLEASE NOTE: This blog post with minor revisions is being re-published because of problems with website design issues. I apologise to followers who will receive the same post a second time.)

Today is the sixth of January, Epiphany, recognised by Christians as the day of the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It is based on the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men or Three Kings) to the baby Jesus as told in the gospel of Matthew. The gospel describes how the Magi (never specified as three in the gospel, but remembered as such in popular tradition) discovered the child and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

T.S.Eliot in this poem seeks to record in dramatic monolgue the significance of the visit.

            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,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 dakness,
And three trees on the low sky.
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: we were 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.

At first for Christian readers there might be disappointment. There is no joy, no giving of gifts, the language seems muted, detached and intellectual. Words like “Information”, phrases such as the exasperatingly coldly objective “it was (you may say) satisfactory”, “there was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt”. This is a voice similar to that of the modern academic, coolly, objectively assessing evidence -as if to sound personal and emotionally involved is a violation of intellectual credentials. It is, whether today or yesterday, when reacting to the wonderful, a profoundly exasperating and limitedly cerebral voice.

What is Eliot doing, transmitting the “information” through such a voice? Partly because, as a possible lecturer at Harvard in Philosophy, it was a voice natural to him.But more is revealed in the final lines of the poem. For something of the mystery and wonder of this birth has got through the intellectual layers of defence. In this Birth they, the Magi, somehow faced their deaths. Hence it was agony. It meant that on returning home they could not abide “at ease here, in the old dispensation.” Consciousness, understanding has moved on, that is their insight as witnesses, but they live among a people who do not know this, who have becometherefore “alien” worshippers of old gods exposed now to the Magi as no longer credible.

They are left unable to communicate with their people with only death to look forward to.

When Eliot became a Christian around the time he wrote the poem many of his friends of the literary world were shocked. T. S. Eliot, the avant-garde poet of the The Wasteland become a Christian! The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) saw it as “betrayal” And this was the reaction of his friend Virgia Woolf (1882-1941). Writing to her sister Vanessa she expresses herself thus:

I had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot , who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. .. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean there’s something obscene in having a person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

By the literary world, the world of Bloomsbury it is Eliot seen as clutching the old God against the insights of post-Darwinian intellectuality and the belief in reason as understood by his society. But the Eliot who wrote “Journey of the Magi” following his conversion saw it was the contemporary world of the literati in its hold of the Nietzschean belief “God is Dead” that was without adequate roots in religious understanding. When Woolf committed suicide in 1941 the grieving Eliot wrote “it was the end of a world.”

So the poem reflects the difference and separation his new found faith has created between the fashionable dispensation and his role as the great poet of the age. Fortunately, unlike the Magi, he has not simply death to look forward to. He is to go on to write his great work “The Four Quartets” and numerous invaluable works of critical reflection.

As for us? It is for each of us- certainly within the Christian tradition- to reflect on what the contemplation of the Nativity does not only for our faith but for our place in the modern world.


In our age when technology is gaining control over life,

when material- well being is considered the most

important goal, when the influence of religions have been

weakened everywhere in the world, a special

responsibility lies upon the writer.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”

Ezra Pound