You’re getting a well-known poem today. We couldn’t resist, even if it does skip the calendar by weeks. We were out today doing our Christmas shopping, things for parcels, things for socks, and that rarity, cards that weren’t treacle-y. We’d like them to be vaguely Christmas themed (rather than, say, wintery), but provided they aren’t soppy, we’re disinclined to be fussy. Imagine our delight then, to read in a piece of poetical trivia, that The Journey of the Magi was supposed to line Christmas cards.
Christmas cards! Think of it. Set down this/ Were we lead all that way for / Birth, or Death? Or earlier, A cold coming we had of it. Not forgetting, I should be glad of a second death. Christmas cards! There were times when we regretted /the summer palaces on slopes. We can’t decide if Faber & Faber commissioned the next Coventry Carol and got, well, Eliot in a theological mood, or if 1927 was the year of the unsentimental Christmas card.
Incredulous we might be, but we wouldn’t dare accuse those cards of soppiness. In fact, we’d probably buy them. Do Faber & Faber still do a line in them? We’ll take half a dozen stamped with that line about the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory/lying down in the melting snow to start with. Maybe if they go over well we’ll look into some inscribed with that bit about the innkeepers dicing for silver. In the meantime, three guesses as to the poem of the evening.
As for the tea…A note on our poetry and tea ritual: Normally we brew the tea up in our little tea for one. We’re not doing that tonight. We took one look at the tea and recoiled in horror. Why? Someone, somewhere was struck with the brilliant inspiration that what tea was missing was…youu’ll love this…coffee. Look, just because little Jassey Radlet, deep in the obscurity of Don’t Tell Alfred, feels (almost) liking coffee makes her grown up, doesn’t mean we do. We can’t abide it. Not just the taste, but the smell, and the texture too. And here it is infiltrating our tea. We’re not sure we can even reasonably call this heresy. Someone has defiled the eighth sacrament. It is wrong.
So we’ve brewed tea in a mug. A teacup, actually, currently stranded from its saucer. Are we being a wee bit hyperbolic? Not really, no. Maybe a little. The thing is, we’ve been ambushed in previous years by coffee-infused tea, and the consequences were not good. And since our innate horror of pouring tea down the drain is strong, a mug it is.
Being reasonable though, coffee-tea doesn’t work as a concept. Watching it in the mug has brought this home to us. The coffee grounds escape the infuser and sink to the bottom of the cup, and that’s before they swamp the taste of the tea. What we really seem to be drinking is coffee that’s on nodding terms with tea, and it’s awful. We think it’s supposed to taste nutty, or something. How does one describe coffee? We don’t have the vocabulary for that.
But look, enough of this. A hard time we had of it indeed. Let’s move on to better things. And as you read, remember -Christmas cards!
The 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 when 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 dirty 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 darkness, And three trees on the low sky,
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 wineskins.
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: were we 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.