An Unexpected Journey

Robert Fitzgerald's poem for Epiphany, which appeared in The New Yorker in January 1967, seems to place the biblical tale of the Magi in a realm Tolkein might have recognised. When Fitzgerald wrote his poem, The Fellowship of the Ring was in its 15th impression, and Rembrandt Films had just produced an animated adaptation of The Hobbit (whose liberties border on the Jacksonian). Middle-earth evoked as much fantastic longing in that turbulent time as it seems to do in ours. Fitzgerald's little poem suggests such longing, and its satisfaction, is never far from any one of us. 

Immortal brilliance of presage
In any dark day’s iron age
May come to lift the hair and bless
Even our tired earthliness
And sundown bring an age of gold,
Forged in faerie, far and old,
An elsewhere and an elfin light,
And kings rise eastward in the night.



The pale unsatisfied ones

Since there is such an abundance of good poetry about the nativity, I thought I would spread it out over the next twelve days, rather than clog up this post with six or seven poems of which you would probably only read the first one or two anyway. So here's the first one, a dense little poem, written in 1914, called “The Magi” by WB Yeats.

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

I wouldn't pretend to understand this poem, but in the context of Yeats' rejection oforthodoxy and interest in the occult, the more I read it the more it seems to me to be about the strange conjunction of an episode in Christian history and a firmament of ancient, pagan mythology; a conjunction which promises more than the crucifixion appears to justify. The 'turbulence' at Calvary is, to these 'pale unsatisfied ones', an ordinary instance of bloody human struggle and death, whereas the nativity, told in the stars, is a compelling and, to them, endlessly mysterious intervention of divinity. Much depends on one's reading of Calvary itself. To a Christian, the incarnation entire (including the crucifixion) is an uncontrollable intervention unfolding on the bestial floor of mortal life. The death of Christ, no less than the birth, is a divine mystery. The search ends there; the star comes to rest above the cross.