Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'The Magi' By W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The Magi

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 depths 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.

Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton
Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton
There is an uncertainty to Yeats’ strange poem of the Nativity which is fitting. As we approach the Christmas season and new year more in hope than joyful anticipation, ‘The Magi’ measures disquiet in quite other terms: the failure, perhaps, of the project of Christianity to live up to the pristine ideal delivered in a nondescript stable in Bethlehem.

For here, the Magi are lifted from the canvas of artistic, probably Renaissance, depiction – the careworn, ‘rain-beaten’ expressions of the Wise Men are a counterpoint to their opulent raiment, and the reflected glow of expectation, of the world rewritten. But this is a backward glance – the Magi are revisiting old territory, in full cognizance of the turbulence and upheaval which cataclysmically re-shaped the world after the Passion.

Yeats’ tender lyricism, flowing in the ululation of concealed rhythm, sinks steadily into ennui. These shamanic presences, remaining in suspended dissatisfaction like historical reminders, are obliged to return, in beleaguered hope, to the scene of the mystery, to find succour for us all. On a straw-ridden floor we now find a tableau whose ‘bestial’ appurtenances take on a new meaning entirely.

A happy and safe Christmas to all our readers!