Monday, January 9, 2017
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
I see that I began something on Epiphany and working with some similar sources about the same time last year but never completed it - well let it be on the table for reflection even if only as a draft and a step toward something more.
With Epiphany nudging at us I find myself looking at the poetry of Eliot and Auden.
I recall my comment in the Midnight Mass: "We carry within us all our Christmases, the heart-warming and the heart-breaking; the childhood memories of the camping trip or when all the family were last about the dinner table..." and this evening have rediscovered in Eliot's 'On the Cultivation of Christmas Trees' the way he explores the implication of the annual effect of the celebration and makes the point:
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By 'eightieth' meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming."
Every Epiphany Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi' comes to mind - no surprise in that. But Eliot gives new space to the legend. (Remembering that Epiphany originates from the Greek phainein to bring to light, to cause to appear, to show; epiphainein to manifest, epiphainea appearance Latin epiphania.) Eliot allows no warm glow of satisfaction; no reassurance of something understood; instead the conclusion he leaves us with is one of questioning and unease.
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,"
This poem was written in the year of Eliot's conversion (1927) and it is plausible to suppose his conversion experience has informed the Magi's anguish of the familiar place, people and culture no longer seeming familiar but now alien.
Both poems close with an eschatalogical yearning - whether second coming or death - an entry into reality.
Auden is less intense than Eliot but his seriousness is never in doubt.
I need to go back to Auden and try to recall which poems of his I had in mind - I suspect 'New Year Letter'.