The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 3

Over the last couple of days, we’ve looked at the connections between literature and the Christmas card. The seasonal greetings card isn’t a genre that is renowned for its great literature, but there is at least one poet who contributed something truly poetic to the form. Today’s pick of our Christmas literary facts concerns this poet and what he brought to the Christmas card.

Or at least, it was a kind of Christmas card – though it might more accurately be considered a pamphlet. What’s more, the poet responsible for writing this Christmas-themed poem wrote the poem in question while under the influence of rather a lot of gin.

Journey of the MagiT. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ was originally commissioned to be included in a Christmas card (or pamphlet). Eliot wrote the poem – about the Magi’s journey to visit the infant Christ – at the request of his publisher, Faber and Faber, who wanted a poem to go inside a series of shilling greeting-cards. The first five lines of Eliot’s 1927 poem are ‘borrowed’ from a Christmas sermon given by Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), one of the key translators of the King James Bible and a considerable influence on Eliot (who had become an Anglo-Catholic earlier in the same year).

How did he come to write the poem? Unlike many of his poems, Eliot wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’ quickly. Very quickly. ‘I had been thinking about it in church,’ Eliot told his second wife, Valerie, years later, ‘and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth’s Gin, poured myself a drink, and began to write. By lunchtime, the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished.’

You can read the poem here, and see our choice of our top 10 favourite poems by Eliot here.

Image: Journey of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 6th c., Wikimedia Commons.

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