Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Essays on Poetry T. S. Eliot, Christmas 1987 by Katherine Bailey

The World as it Is

T.S. Eliot begins his poem, “Journey of the Magi,” with:  

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey…

Proportionate to the physical stamina required of the Magi in their journey to Bethlehem is the spiritual strength needed by every thinking person in order to maneuver sanely through December into the New Year. At no other time are polarities so apparent.

Laughing, stylishly dressed couples sip wine at Orchestra Hall as Handel’s “Messiah” awaits them, while an AIDS victim weeps into a TV camera. Plush, ostentatious offices proliferate along the skyway while a homeless mother and her three-year-old bed down for the night at a south Minneapolis shelter. “Glasnost” leads to measurable progress in arms reduction, but Mikhail Gorbachev bristles when questioned about human rights.

All of this assaults a person’s emotional balance at the same time as the ultimate polarity of the sacred and profane manifests itself: the ineffable abstraction of God becoming man is trivialized in its commemoration by gift-wrapped Chicken McNuggets, Tammy Faye Bakker dolls, the insidious Santa Bear, and the Chipmunks screeching out carols.

No wonder the usually serene person is subject to Christmas mood swings. The difference between the world as it is and the world as it is supposed to be must be confronted.

New Years offers no soothing respite but rather additional stress by dramatizing the inevitable passing of time. It emphasizes that we are indeed mortal, and the more New Years we have cheered in, the more pressure we feel to “get it right,” this business of living.

Like Christmas, New Year’s Day has its polarities. On the one hand it serves as a watershed for those who are striving for human perfection; it offers the auspicious beginning, the clean slate. On the other hand we acknowledge failure in past years to achieve significant changes, and consequently we carry a load of mistakes and disappointments into the New Year. We are inclined to positive feelings toward our fellow man at this cheery, festive time. But experience has shown us the evils that human beings are capable of visiting on one another.

There are the resolutions to quit smoking, read a chapter of Proust every week, and visit a housebound neighbor on a regular basis, but there is the awareness that we will never change. New Year after New Year will plunge us into old age with our basic natures magnified and intensified. The spiteful and paranoid within us will simply become more spiteful and paranoid.

Yet we are fortunate because the holiday season which demands so much spiritual stamina, ironically, supplies it. It does so through the gift of renewal, a spiritual second wind. The religious renewal of Christmas and the secular renewal of New Years become intertwined; the newness of soul achieved by the realization that the Nativity proves us to be supremely worthy beings, and the resolve occasioned by the turning of the calendar reinforce and sustain one another.

Let us hope that this joint renewal will bring about not only strength of soul but also true kinship to Eliot’s Magi, as he depicts them near the end of the poem:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.