On this winter solstice evening I will cast a glance – weather permitting – towards the western sky and try to catch sight of the predicted close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, to form an apparent star of unusual luminescence, not seen for four hundred years. Whatever chaos reigns on planet Earth, it is reassuring to know that the majestic clockwork still ticks along over our heads. These planetary bodies are like the Mississippi; they just keep rolling along. Maybe this is what the Magi saw.
I was thinking of the Magi on Sunday evening while attending a Zoom ceremony of lessons and carols. Sometimes on these occasions – though not on this one – you hear a recitation of T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. It is a remarkable poem, rich in imagery and symbolism. But it is not a comfortable, far less a comforting poem. On the contrary it is profoundly disturbing. It closes with the expression of a death wish not unlike the death wish of another winter traveller, the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, who pauses at a wayside inn, Das Wirtshaus, which is actually a graveyard. The traveller enquires if there is any room in the inn. Two songs later he observes a phenomenon of the heavens, much as the Magi may have observed Saturn-Jupiter. Die Nebensonnen. Ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the sun’s light to give an illusion that there are three suns – “mock suns” – aligned in the sky. The traveller turns his back on them.
Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein.
I’d be better off in the dark.
Schubert’s forlorn lover travelled on foot, the Magi by camel. We travel by Airbus A380 and we plan to travel by HS2. The earth flashes by unseen. It’s more a hallucination of travel, a kind of vertigo.
Eliot’s poem seems to me to be the poem of this time, our time. We can no longer be at ease in the old dispensation. It has become clear even over the past twenty four hours that a vaccine is not likely to provide us with a quick fix for the predicament we are in. The English Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that the situation is out of control. The Prime Minister’s bullish prediction earlier in the year that we would be back to normal by Christmas sounds more than ever like the predictions of August 1914 – Berlin this Christmas, then home. In fact, if this thing only lasts for the duration of the Great War, we might count ourselves lucky.
But surely the old dispensation is gone. Surely we must not attempt to resume normal service. Apparently not. Last week the Supreme Court overruled the environmental objections to a third runway at Heathrow, and allowed planning to proceed. HS2 is alive and well. All roads lead to London. Under the old dispensation, aeroplanes were taking off and landing at Heathrow every forty five seconds. Why on earth would you want to cut this down to thirty seconds? Why would you want to cut a swathe through the hedgerows of England just to get from Birmingham to London twenty minutes quicker, and make the journey sixteen times every hour? I suppose it is because our beloved leaders are intent on making Britain great again. London is a hub. London is the centre of the world. A “world leader”. It does not seem to matter that casting an Airbus A380 into the air every minute is not compatible with the survival of the natural world, so long as we can get back to our old habits of conspicuous consumption.
There are these wonderful lines in Ben Jonson’s Volpone which exquisitely capture the death wish of the old dispensation:
…and could we get the Phoenix,
Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.
Count me out.