(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.


(Please note this is a reblogged post as part of the series on Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now following the earlier ones on the Tower of Babel and Plato’s Cave).

I made the claim a few week’s ago that Plato’s cave, along with the Tower of Babel, are two ancient stories that help to tell us where we are in the modern world. (I also included Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but it is hardly ancient.)

What is the state of modern knowledge? How advanced is our human consciousness?

Plato considered that knowledge based totally on sense experience-what we might learnedly call empiricism- shows only images and reflections of reality, not the real thing. The real thing is consciousness of ideal forms in the eternal world that lead us to understanding of what, for instance, true beauty and goodness and justice are. Only the clear- minded who have escaped the imitation world of shadows and reflections can attain this knowledge. They draw on the light of the sun, the source of all true seeing and representing the Good. He tells the allegory of the Cave to reveal the process.

That summary is my very simple reading of the philosophy behind the allegory. But the significance of the allegory seems to spread far beyond Plato’s world-picture to challenge ours.

For the cave still exists. Indeed it is ubiquitous; it cannot be escaped. Plato’s prisoners were only to understand reality through media that distorts, from reflections thrown by a fire, of things-artefacts- supposedly making up the real world. In the modern cave there need be no such obvious prisoners. People are free to inhabit the cave and are apparently happy to do so. The media of the fire, with its images, has been replaced by the vastly more efficient and powerful media of modern technology. Imagine not a cave stretching back some little way but a great underground cavern, that stretches interminably on all sides, full of screens. Some of these are great public screens for mass viewing-you might see there important political happenings or speeches or sporting events, as on television screens ; others are huge banks of small screens like you see in the background of a news studio with people able to choose their own chosen programme. But apart from these public areas there are built into the sides of the cavern masses of tiny cells for private viewing. Almost magically everyone has access to this world of screen by their own route-from home, from work. So people might gather in crowds before the big screens; or else they retire to private viewing screens. People inter-relate with the screens. In their hands they hold a mobile which enables them to connect with any of a forest of screens. They connect with others through screens: “Friends” they know only by media. “Enemies” they engage with and condemn through media. A world that is all social media. A place of distractions, a place where you can be assured your illusions are real and you can meet with others to confirm the illusions. A place where there is factual news reporting and a place which claims the factual is fake. A place where you can feed your mind on fantasy sex, on aggression, on revenge, on hate and where you can express your own outraged feelings on a screen held before you.

You will say I am missing the good stuff, the beneficial information, the positive interactions between people far apart, the beauty of places you cannot see nor will ever see in person. There is very much of course that is good, that provides us with information that is useful to us. There are interactions with family and friends who live far away; opportunities for sending and receiving positive messages are available. If it were not so I’d be a hypocrite typing this blog post from my little private cell to you in yours!

But the good stuff is dependent on another world. It is dependent on people knowing the reality of the world beyond, and the beauty of the world beyond and communicating that to others within the cave who recognise the same or want to recognise the same.

But if people fail to draw on sources of life and strength in the world beyond then the world of screens has the power to dominate and diminish their consciousness and limit them to a world of images and reflections that lead them away from reality rather than towards it. You see people “distracted from distraction by distraction, Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”). You see people with short attention spans, looking for the image that will excite attention and switching rather desperately from picture to picture. You see children particularly adept and smart in their handling of the technology. This is the world they have grown up with. You fear for them, that their very proficiency makes it difficult for them to understand other sources of knowledge. They think they have it all here.

To revert to questions asked earlier you have probably forgotten What is the state of modern knowledge and consciousness? In so far as knowledge is information it is, most of it, there in our metaphorical cavern. But information does not “form” the inner -me. It does not inwardly form my mind and character. It merely gives us facts to possess. Only through being inwardly formed, mind and spirit is our consciousness-our knowledge of the good, the beautiful , the true developed. Only then do we see clearly, not in the cave, but in the sunshine of the upper world. It is there reality is to be known and lived.


We have been looking at Romanticism in general and some aspects of pre-romanticism ( the picturesque, the sublime etc) and the history of “romantic” as a word. We shall be looking at various examples of Romantic poetry and prose and asking questions as to its continuing influence on us today. But here is another angle: what does romanticism mean to the philosopher? Below is a passage from Simon Blackburn’s “The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy” first published 1994.(O.U.P.).

Romanticism. The movement that swept European and thence American culture between about 1775 and 1830, although heralded by preceding elements in the 18th century ( antiquarianism, novels of sensibility, the taste for the sublime and the picturesque, and above all Rousseau’s elevation of nature and sentiment above civilisation and intellect). Romanticism was partly a reaction against the stiff intellectuality of the Enlightenment and its official, static, neo-classical art, in favour of the spontaneous, the unfettered, the subjective, the imaginative and emotional, and the inspirational and heroic. In philosophy, the Romantics took from Kant both the emphasis on free will and the doctrine that reality is ultimately spiritual, with nature itself a mirror of the human soul. In Schelling, nature became a creative spirit whose aspiration is ever fuller and more complete self-realisation. Knowledge of the nature of this spirit (the Absolute) cannot be acquired by rational and analytic means, but only by emotional and intuitive absorption within the process. The spontaneous innocence of the child (and of humanity in its childhood) is corrupted with the onset of intellectual separation from nature, but the individual, and equally human history, can overcome this separation by a spiritual process of regaining the lost unity, albeit cleansed and improved by the journey. Romantic art is thus essentially one of movement, figured in quests, journeys and pilgrimages whose aim is to return to a lost home or haven.”

Much of this points to what attracted me as a young man to the Romantics. When D. H. Lawrence-perhaps the last great Romantic- wrote “The two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.” The former I knew was the knowing inculcated by our schooling and mental predispositions and promoted by our technological, computer-based civilisation. But it was “knowing in togetherness” I craved. Hence, I went especially to the poetry of the Romantics, particularly Blake and Wordsworth and in seeking a sense of the religious I sought a “spiritual process of regaining lost unity”. As, when I read Carlyle’s classic Sartor Resartus years later, I found that he put it: ” that Communing of Soul with Soul; for only in looking heavenward…does what we can call Union, mutual love, Society, begin to be possible.”