Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot
Stanza 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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,
- After the Magi have pushed on miserably all night, they end up at "a temperate valley." The word temperate in this case means mild, climate-wise. It's a welcome contrast to the wintry weather that the Magi have just plodded through to get there.
- The whole "smelling of vegetation" thing further enhances the decidedly non-winter atmosphere. It's like the seasons have suddenly changed.
- Wait a minute. That doesn't really happen in real life. Not if you're traveling by camel anyway. So what's going on here? It seems like maybe, just maybe, this could be symbolic for something—the coming of the baby Jesus, perhaps? Something like salvation? That could certainly be depicted as a sudden movement from winter to spring.
- So there's that shadowy other-narrator-guy again, speaking through the Magus in such a way that we're all "Hey! Symbolism!" even though the Magus himself sure doesn't know he's being symbolic.
- The passage continues to elaborate upon the mild surroundings of the area (presumably Bethlehem's general vicinity) before them. It's got a running stream (so it's not frozen), and it's civilized (hence the water mill). All in all? Not too shabby.
- The last line of this passage is a little weird, though. Why only three trees on the horizon? If this is such a lush valley, the singling-out of three particular trees seems a little odd.
- Unless, that is, we return to our trusty Bible, and recall that, when Jesus was crucified, he wasn't the only one receiving capital punishment. There were two thieves flanking him. That's right – there were three crosses on that hill.
- Of course, this is yet another image that projects way into the future. The Magus, in his observation as a character, technically could have no way of knowing that the baby he was about to go see would be crucified thirty-three years later. But Eliot does—and it's Eliot that's writing the Magus's monologue. The dual-narrator surfaces again. And he's going to stay with us for the rest of this stanza.
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.
- The last observation of the valley that we get before the Magi head down into the town itself is this "old white horse."
- Since we're in symbolism mode, we'll take a few stabs at what this might mean (we'll go into way more detail in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" section, so head over there if you want the whole enchilada).
- The adjectives "old" and "white" sound a little like they might symbolize the conventional Christian God—you know, the ancient dude with the flowing white beard and the white robes.
- But what about the "horse" part? God's never depicted as a horse, as far as we know. Are there any Biblical horses, in general?
- In fact, there are, but they're decidedly less friendly than an old man in a robe. The most famous horses in the Bible are probably the four horses of the Apocalypse, that come down to cleanse the Earth of sinners in Revelation (which is the wackiest and scariest part of the Bible, by the way).
- So we have a conventional, gentle image of God combined with an animal that, in the Bible, wreaks havoc on humanity. Hmm. That's new.
- Keep in mind, though, that the horse is running "away" from the scene. This detail could be significant. Maybe it's God, having bestowed his son upon the earth, retreating for a while. And maybe the apocalyptic horse is being driven away for the time being. Maybe it's Gandalf and Shadowfax. Maybe not.
- Back to the poem. The Magi come to a tavern (which usually doubled as inns in those days), where they see a few guys gambling over some dice.
- They may well be a little tipsy, too, because there's mention of "empty wine-skins." In this case, a "wine-skin" is a bag used way back in the day to hold wine.
- It was, ickily enough, usually made out of the stomach or skin of a goat or cow. Hence the "skin" part.
- We've also got some more sneaky religious allusions at work here.
- First, there's that word lintel, which alludes to the story of Passover from Exodus 12, in which God instructed the Israelites to splash blood over their doors (on the lintel) to protect their first born children.
- Then we've got those six pieces of silver to deal with. This just might be an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus.
- Oh, Eliot. You're almost too clever for your own good, packing all that religion into these few lines.
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.
- The first part of this passage seems to indicate that the Magi asked the guys in the doorway whether or not they knew of the location of the stable where Jesus was to be born.
- And—surprise, surprise—it turns out the drunks at the local watering hole don't have a clue. So the Magi soldier on.
- It takes them all day to get to the stable. Apparently the inn wasn't in Bethlehem at all.
- Notice how the narrator never says the word "stable" or "manger" or "barn" or anything else that would indicate what kind of place they were trying to find.
- It's as though the narrator simply assumes that his audience will know what the Magi have been searching for (which—let's face it—we do).
- Apparently they arrive just in the nick of time, too, though we're not yet sure as to whether this means just before the birth or just after it.
- So they've found the place, they've arrived. And then the Magus-narrator says something incredibly peculiar: "it was (you may say) satisfactory."
- What on earth does this mean? The parenthetical aside almost makes the Magus sound a little snarky, like "yeah, it was a barn, whatever," which seems strange, given the fact that the Magi are well aware that they're headed to see the birth of a savior (though a savior of what kind, they're not sure). We mean, shouldn't that be kind of a big deal?
- So you'd think that finding a baby in a manger wouldn't prompt something more along the lines of "spectacular!" than "satisfactory." Maybe the Magus is just grateful that the baby's alive, that the barn was "satisfactory" enough to ensure at least that much.
- But again, it's Eliot, and we're thinking there's more to it than that. For more Biblical digging, see "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay." We won't disappoint.