views updated

Journey of the Magi

T. S. Eliot 1927

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

T. S. Eliot is best known for his lengthy, complex poems such as “Ash Wednesday” and the Four Quartets. Many readers find these poems daunting, not only because of their length but because of their complex classical and literary references. For this reason, “Journey of the Magi” often provides an effective introduction to Eliot. It has only forty-three lines and is based on a familiar Tate, the visit of the Magi (the three Wise Men) to the infant Christ Child.

The poem is divided into three sections. In the first, the speaker, one of the Magi who is looking back on the event after many years, recalls the numerous difficulties of the caravan journey. The second describes their arrival in Bethlehem, noting that what they found was “satisfactory.” In the final section, the speaker ponders the meaning and importance of that particular birth.

“Journey of the Magi” is the first of several poems that Eliot wrote for his publishers, Faber and Gwyer, for inclusion in a series of one-shilling Christmas greeting cards. It was the eighth in the series, which included works by other famous poets, such as Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and Siegfried Sassoon. Eliot liked Faber’s title, “Ariel Poems,” and kept it for his works that had been commissioned for the series, both because he could think of no better name and because no one else seemed to have a use for the title.

“Journey of the Magi” can be read and appreciated on many levels. While it is accessible to a casual reader, critics have discovered several literary sources that enrich the meaning of the poem. The imagery, while again understandable on a surface level, may be explored to find multiple themes. Finally, since the poem was written in the year of Eliot’s own conversion, the quest of the Magi for the Christ child can be seen as a parallel to Eliot’s own religious quest.

Author Biography

“In my beginning is my end”—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” (1940).

Most short biographies begin with the subject’s birth. However, it seems appropriate to open the chronology of Thomas Steams Eliot’s life with mention of a distant ancestor, Andrew Eliot, who left East Coker in England for Massachusetts in the 1660s; Eliot felt a strong connection both to England and to this town, using its name as the title for the second of his Four Quartets. His forbears remained in Massachusetts until 1834, when his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, moved to St. Louis and helped establish Washington University. Eliot’s parents were prominent and cultured members of the city’s elite. On September 26, 1888, T. S. Eliot, the youngest of seven children, was born.

Eliot was educated at Smith Academy in St. Louis and Milton Academy in Massachusetts. He then entered Harvard University in 1906 on his eighteenth birthday. While there, he became editor of the Harvard Advocate, which published several of his poems. After his graduation in 1910, he traveled to Paris, studying at the Sorbonne before returning to Harvard to continue graduate studies in philosophy. In 1914, he traveled to Germany on a fellowship. However, the outbreak of World War I forced him to move to England, where he continued his studies in philosophy at Oxford. In England, he met Ezra Pound, who became Eliot’s mentor. Pound’s assistance eventually led to the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the magazine Poetry in 1915.

That same year, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood, daughter of the artist Charles Haigh-Wood. Theirs was a tumultuous, unsuccessful marriage. Over the next few years, Eliot taught school, published his first poems in Britain, finished his thesis, worked at Lloyd’s Bank, and became assistant editor of the literary magazine The Egoist. The year 1922 was a key in determining Eliot’s future. He founded a literary and philosophical journal titled

Criterion, and in its first issue, Eliot published The Wasteland, the poem that catapulted him to the foreground of the Modernist movement in poetry. In 1925, he joined the publishing company Faber & Gwyer, which took over the publication of his magazine. His relationship with the company would last throughout his life.

Although Eliot continued to write criticism after the publication of The Wasteland, ill health and his growing marital problems caused writer’s block; he believed he would never write poetry again. Because he had accepted the commission to write “Journey of the Magi,” he overcame his fears, with great success. At the same time he was working on the commissioned poem, he began composing material that would later appear in “Ash Wednesday.” In 1927, the year in which “Journey of the Magi” was published, Eliot converted to the Anglican Church and became a British citizen. A few years later, in 1932, Eliot returned to Harvard as a professor of poetry. Since his wife’s behavior was growing increasingly erratic, he obtained a legal separation from her. Eliot continued to publish notable poetry, plays, and literary criticism, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

In 1957, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber and Faber. He died in London on January 4, 1965, and his ashes are interred at East Coker. On the memorial plaque, following the heading “Remember Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet,” are two lines from “East Coker:” The line that opens this biography and the sentence “In my end is my beginning.”

Poem Text

“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.”                              5
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.                10
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 hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:      15
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.                               20
 
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            25
      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 wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon          30
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                      35
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,              40
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-5

The first five lines of this poem describe a journey, and from the poem’s title, we know that those traveling are Magi. The Magi, or wise men, were members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. They were thought to be knowledgeable about astronomy and able to interpret dreams. (The word Magi is plural; the singular form is Magus.)

These lines are adapted from a 1622 Christmas sermon given by Lancelot Andrewes, a bishop who helped establish the Anglican church. Eliot greatly admired Andrewes, not only for his intellectual approach toward faith, but also for his writing style. In a collection of essays published in 1928, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, Eliot singled out Andrewes’s ability to keep his lines moving forward. He felt that each new word Andrewes wrote created an added idea or dimension in his writing. Andrewes’s original line read, “It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year; just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and especially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali,’the very dead of winter’.” Notice that Eliot keeps the style and tone of these lines in his adaptation. The use of cumulative phrases, the stops and starts of the punctuation, the informal syntax, and the use of alliteration set the pattern for the first section of the poem.

Lines 6-7

The rest of the first section of “Journey of the Magi” is devoted to a listing of the problems faced by the Magi, using a series of clear and specific images. These lines describe the camels. “Galled” refers to sores caused by chafing. Because the animals were uncomfortable, they grew stubborn and difficult to manage, lying in the snow and refusing to go on. Line 6 starts with “and”; many additional lines in this section begin in a similar manner. This not only helps to reinforce the impression of the enormous difficulties the Magi face as their troubles accumulate, but along with frequent alliteration and a falling cadence, it helps to establish the section’s rhythm.

Lines 8-10

These lines contrast the difficulties mentioned previously with the world the Magi abandoned when they undertook this journey: summer versus winter; terraces with silken girls as opposed to sharp weather; gentle slopes in contrast with deep ways; and sherbet instead of melting snow. The Magi, however, have no thought of turning back from their quest. The regret is only for loss of ease and comfort, not for having undertaken the journey.

Lines 11-15

The Magus describes another series of difficulties: a list of all that went wrong. Notice that there are ten “ands” in this sentence. Punctuating the list in a long phrase forces the reader to join one image to another, strengthening the poem’s theme of the difficult quest. In addition, the parallel structure of the phrases helps to create the rhythm.

Line 16

This is a simple rephrasing of line 1. After the vivid list of problems, the reader now has a far clearer understanding of the hardships that the Magi faced.

Lines 17-18

Problems caused by hostility of the inhabitants of the lands they travel through actually become more difficult than the hazards of the weather, so the caravan travels by night to avoid human contact. The phrase “sleeping in snatches” conveys their great wariness of the danger around them.

Lines 19-20

Eliot makes the voices deeming the journey “folly” very unspecific, but the reader can guess that they include the camel men, the hostile villagers, as well as the inner voices of the Magi themselves, questioning the wisdom of going through this long trial.

Lines 21-22

As the second section opens, the Magi come down “below the snow line” and enter “a temperate valley.” Once again, Eliot provides clear contrasts as the poem moves from summer to winter, barren landscapes to lush vegetation, and night into dawn. Initially, it seems that the Magi have reached their goal, since they have clearly escaped from “the very dead of winter” into a place rich with life.

Line 23

The entire section is filled with symbolism and imagery. Several critics have pointed out that Eliot drew many of the pictures in this scene from his own experience. In The Use of Poetry and the Use

Media Adaptations

  • Voices and Visions: T. S. Eliot, a videocassette released by the Annenberg/CPB Project in 1987, follows Eliot’s career from “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” to the Four Quartets.
  • “Journey of the Magi” in included in The Wasteland and Other Poems, a 1996 release by Faber Penquin Audiobooks.
  • The 1994 Mirimax film Tom and Viv is a vivid, well-acted portrayal of the destructive relationship between Eliot and his first wife.

of Criticism, Eliot noted that some scenes remain vivid in our memories: “Why, for all of us, out of all that we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a watermill.” Many of these details appear in section two. Critics often use this point to reinforce the autobiographical element in the poem.

Line 24

Although the entire scene presented in this section is rich and full of life, much of the imagery foreshadows the crucifixion. Here, the “three trees on the low sky” recall the crosses on the hill of Golgotha, where Christ died.

Line 25

Once again, while the horse running free in the meadow gives an impression of ease and beauty, many critics see it as a reference to the horse of the Bible’s book of Revelation 6:2, the horse of the war and the conqueror. The white horse appears again in Revelation 19:6, carrying the King of Kings when he appears out of the heavens.

Lines 26-28

These lines are filled with images that come from throughout the Bible: grape vine leaves frequently symbolize Christ; the lintel in the book of Exodus was marked with blood to tell the Angel of Death to pass over the homes of the Jews; the men “dicing for pieces of silver” hold connotations of Judas, who sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver, as well as the soldiers who diced for Christ’s garments during the crucifixion.

Lines 29-31

The Magi, of course, can not possibly be aware of the symbolism of the previous images, and they continue on to search for the stable. These three lines are extremely ambiguous. After the hardships of the journey and the lush richness of the temperate valley, they seem extraordinarily understated. There is no visualization of stable or child. The speaker simply says that it was “satisfactory.” To most readers, this word has the connotation of something that does not fully live up to its promise. However, there are several different interpretations of what “satisfactory” means. It may indicate disappointment that the Magi did not find a king and did not receive an answer or enlightenment. The term also could be used to indicate that the birth fulfilled the prophecy that brought them there; in fact, it satisfied all the elements. It could also refer to the fact that Anglican theologians use the term “satisfactory” to refer to Christ’s sacrifice, since Christ’s redemption satisfies the sins of the world.

Lines 32-36

In the third section, the poem shifts the time frame. Now, long after the journey itself, the Magus ponders the meaning of all that happened. He begins his contemplation by emphasizing that the experience was so valuable that he would do it again, in spite of the hardships of the journey. The phrase “set down this” seems to indicate that he is speaking to an audience, perhaps someone who is writing down his memories. He attempts to explain what he had found so unsettling about the nature of the event.

Lines 37-39

The Magus is trying to understand the relationship between the birth he observed and death. Although his grasp of the complete implications of the event is imperfect, he senses that in witnessing the birth of this child, he also witnessed the end of the world that he had previously known.

Lines 40-42

The realm that the Magus used to dominate has changed for him. Once a member of the priestly caste, he no longer feels comfortable in that role. “Old dispensation” refers to his culture and religion that the Magus senses have somehow now been overshadowed by a new culture and religion. Because he is caught between these two cultures, between birth and death, he feels “alien” with his own people.

Line 43

Eliot deliberately leaves this line open to interpretation. It is not specifically stated what death the Magus wants. It might be the death of the child who will redeem the world. It could be the death of the old era. He could wish his own death, since, in a way, he has been dead to his environment since his return. The line could refer to all of these meanings.

Themes

Journey or Quest

This poem recounts the quest of the Magi for the Christ Child, along with its aftermath. Two separate journeys, the historic and the spiritual one, are presented. The first, historic, journey follows the traditional pattern of all quest literature. The trip begins in hardship; it is the worst time for such an expedition. Difficulties mount as the Magi continue. They face problems with nature, their animals, their servants, and with the people in the lands where they travel. However, they remain committed to the quest, eventually reaching a fertile valley. The poem uses imagery of light/warmth and dark/cold for contrast. During the first part of the journey, winter snow surrounded the Magi; the fires kept going out; they were forced to travel at night. When they reach the valley, it is dawn and the land is rich with the smell of vegetation. Initially, the symbolism seems to indicate that the Magi have reached their ultimate destination by moving into a beautiful valley at the beginning of a new day. However, this is not the case, and they are forced to continue their quest. When they arrive at the journey’s end, it is evening, a time symbolically caught between the dark of night and the dawn. The end of the physical, historical, journey is “satisfactory.” While that journey is over, however, it initiates the beginning of the second, the travels; these details are used to present a picture that symbolically foreshadows an event that will occur thirty-three years later. All of this helps to emphasize the archetypal or mythic nature of the poem. The themes that Eliot deals with in “Journey of the Magi” are part of humankind’s continual search for truth.

Style

“Journey of the Magi” is a dramatic monologue that is written in free verse, which means that it does not use a regular meter or rhyme scheme. Eliot once said, however, that no verse was free for the man who wanted to do a good job. Rather than use a set metric pattern, the poem’s rhythm is established by the quotation from Lancelot Andrewes. The natural pattern of speech is referred to as a cadence, and it is frequently used to create the sense of rhythm in free verse. In fact, Eliot’s friend and mentor Ezra Pound urged that cadence be substituted for the more complicated metrical designations.

Notice the use of alliteration in those first lines: “cold coming,” “ways,” “weather,” and “winter.” This helps to create the poem’s cadence or rhythm. Andrewes’s sermon also builds by an accumulation of short phrases, often joined by the word “and.” Eliot continues this cadence, particularly in the first section. There is frequent alliteration—“summer ... slopes” “silken ... sherbet,” “camel ... cursing”—and this section also contains the word “and” 14 times. Another device that helps create the poem’s cadence is the use of parallel structure, such as the verbs in lines 11 and 12 (“cursing,” “grumbling,” “running,” “wanting”) and the similarity of the phrases in lines 14 and 15 (“And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly / And the villages dirty and charging high prices”).

In the second section, the tone shifts; both the cadence and the images are softer and more flowing. Although the lines become longer and looser, they still build with an accumulation of detail. The imagery in this section is highly symbolic, such as the three trees that foreshadow the crucifixion. The tone shifts again in the final section, as the speaker’s voice becomes weary. Line breaks interrupt the continuity of thought in a way they do not in the first two sections. The final word in many lines consists of a single syllable, which creates a harsher and more abrupt attitude. The final word in three separate lines, including the last, is “death.” Like the Magus, the lines themselves are no longer at ease.

Historical Context

The latter part of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States was a period of growth, change, and development. As industrialization spread across western Europe and the northern United States, urban areas grew at an enormous rate. Capitalists and entrepreneurs amassed huge fortunes. New inventions changed the way people lived, worked, traveled, and communicated with each other. Enormous strides in medicine made the world a much healthier place. For many, it seemed a golden age, a period of great peace and prosperity.

Looking at the society around him, however, American humorist Mark Twain described the period, instead, as “The Gilded Age.” This seems a more appropriate designation, since undercurrents of strife, poverty, political unrest, and intellectual assaults on the beliefs and values of the previous centuries fermented beneath the glittering surface. Artists and philosophers challenged traditional ways of thought. Scientists questioned not only man’s role in the universe, but the universe itself. Political theorists challenged governmental systems based on class and exclusionary policies.

One major change during this period involved the population explosion in urban areas. In 1850, New York’s population was less than 700,000. By the turn of the century, it had grown to more than 3,000,000. Similar growth occurred in all major industrial centers as immigrants, displaced cottage and agricultural workers, and fortune seekers rushed to find employment in the cities. This enormous growth, however, created several problems. The number of people seeking to work in the cities caused living conditions to deteriorate. Slums grew up across the industrialized world: in New York, Chicago, Brussels, London, Manchester, and along major river valleys, such as the Ruhr in Germany and the Clyde in Scotland. Living conditions were appalling; six to ten people frequently shared a single, small, dark room with no access to water. Workers often toiled from twelve to sixteen hours a day in factories with no health or safety precautions. Eventually, outrage over the intolerable conditions led to changes. Worker revolts, the formation of labor unions, and liberal outrage caused spiritual journey that is described in the final section of the poem.

Just as the historical journey was long and hard, so now is the spiritual journey. Obviously, the Magus has been seeking an understanding of the significance of the birth for many years. He realizes that it had far more consequence than the ordinary birth of a noble or king. In fact, he recognizes that this birth foreshadows death—not just the child’s death, but in some way his own. When he returns, after the historic journey is complete, the second journey is still far from over. His established religious beliefs have withered. Since the Magi are the priestly caste, this amounts to the loss of home, faith, and even culture. He is uncomfortable in the “old dispensation,” a way of life that he believes the birth will irrevocably end. Yet, he does not feel at home in the new dispensation either. The ambiguous last line sums up his weariness. Death would be the end of the second journey, perhaps leading again to rebirth and yet another journey.

Birth and Death

In “Journey of the Magi,” the terms “birth” and “death” function in many different ways. The child who is the object of the quest is literally born and, as all humans do, will eventually die. However, this particular birth and death have enormous theological implications. In both the poem and the Bible, the Magi are coming as representatives of all Gentiles to witness the Incarnation, the birth of Christ. With this birth, the son of God became man. However, as the second stanza makes clear, this birth is intrinsically interlocked with death. The son of God, made man, must die in order for the redemption to take place.

As a Gentile, the Magus is an outsider. While the birth of this Messiah had long been a part of Jewish belief, it is no established tenet for the speaker. He stands apart from the tradition, which makes acceptance of this miracle easy. Even the reader without a background in Judeo-Christian symbols recognizes images in that temperate valley that would never be familiar to the Magi. Thus, the poem is also about conversion, or personal redemption. This introduces another type of birth and death, the movement between belief systems. It is no easy thing to abandon an old religion and adopt another. Although critics debate the importance of Eliot’s own conversion in the year that “Journey of the Magi” was written, the poem clearly illustrates the dilemmas of the convert. The arrival of the Magi occurred at twilight, caught between dark and dawn. The convert, too, must exist for a time caught

Topics for Further Study

  • In “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot builds his poem from a single biblical verse. Choose a Tate that is familiar to you; it could be another Bible story, a myth, a folk or fairy Tate. In either prose or poetry, create your own version. You may choose to keep the original setting or update the story.
  • Caravans were among the oldest form of trade and transportation in the ancient world. Many cities rose and fell because of their proximity to a caravan route. Research some of these ancient highways and explain how they influenced the course of world history.
  • The Magi were the priestly caste in ancient Persia, leaders of the Zoroastrian religion. Write a report on this ancient religion.
  • Create your own poem using the motif of the “quest” (a journey through both physical and psychological “space” in search for treasure and/or wisdom) to express your own vision of reality and the meaning of life.

between birth and death, not totally free from the past, not totally reborn to the future. It is easy to see why someone torn between two lives would be glad of another death.

Time

In “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot describes events that exist in several different time frames. The first is the temporal or historic level that is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. However, the spiritual journey that the poem describes is not a one-time occurrence. It is not only descriptive of the Magi’s quest, but can be extended to describe the journey of all who sought or seek to know the Jewish Messiah. Finally, the Incarnation itself is the point where the eternal joins temporal reality.

Eliot conveys a sense of this by his blurring of time distinctions. The poem opens with lines from a sermon given in 1622. The second section is filled with twentieth-century memories from Eliot’s own

Compare & Contrast

  • 1927: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for murder after what has often been deemed an unjust trial. Since the two immigrants were anarchists, many people believed that they were convicted because of their politics rather than the evidence.

    1977: Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller granted Sacco and Vanzetti posthumous pardons.

    1998: Studies conducted by Northwestern University Law School discovered that one in seven persons who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death were innocent. An overwhelming percentage were poor and minorities.

  • 1927: Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.
    1961: Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record, hitting 61 home runs.

    1998: Both Mark McGwire, with 70 home runs, and Sammy Sosa, with 66, broke Roger Maris’s record. McGwire went into the stands to embrace Maris’s sons after he hit the record-breaking 62nd home run.

  • 1927: Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight in 33 hours and 39 minutes.

    1998: On the seventy-first anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight, the X Prize foundation conducted a sweepstakes contest called “Your Ticket to Space:” The prize: tickets on the first commercial passenger space flight.

many national and local governments to pass various labor reform laws. New education initiatives and the drive for universal education also helped to improve the lot of the working class.

Scientific developments also revolutionized society. New inventions appeared with clockwork regularity. It was in the area of the social sciences, however, where theorists challenged long-established views about man and nature. One of the most controversial natural scientists was Charles Darwin. His views on evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to pit science against the Bible, a controversy that has still not been completely resolved. The emerging role of psychology also helped to create changes. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, psychology had been viewed as simply a branch of philosophy. By applying scientific principles to human behavior, however, experimenters such Ivan Pavlov began to study man as a machine, conditioned by the world around him, rather than in ultimate control of that world. Sigmund Freud examined the importance of repression and the unconscious in determining man’s behavior. For centuries, Western society had a confident set of values and expectations, based on the firm belief that man was the measure of all things. Suddenly, cracks were appearing in this foundation, and traditional answers no longer satisfied the questions raised by these theorists.

New developments in all areas of the arts also threatened traditional assumptions about man and God. In part as a reaction against the sentimentality and romanticism of the first part of the century, realistic novelists such as Thomas Hardy and Fyodor Dostoevsky determined to portray life as it actually was. Hardy’s novels dramatize the problems of the individual struggling, often impotently, against the hostile—or at best indifferent—forces of society and nature. The naturalist novelists, such as Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, were even more clinical, seeking to describe their characters with scientific objectivity and detachment. In art, realists such as Jean Francoise Millet accurately portrayed the brutality of the lives of the peasants. The realists were followed by the impressionists, who were most interested in the play of color and light. The post-impressionists and cubists began to concentrate on essential geometric shapes. The idealized or romanticized human form was no longer central in art.

Several new political movements sprang up during this period. Throughout Europe and the United States, workers began to unite, women started to demand more rights, and class struggles shook Ireland and Russia. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels were outraged by the working conditions that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. They were bitterly opposed to the capitalist system, which Marx believed led to misery and mental degradation.

In England, after the death of Queen Victoria, the nation seemed plagued by a weakening sense of national destiny. Then World War I provided cataclysmic proof of the weaknesses of governmental systems that tortured the world for four years in a senseless war that killed, maimed, and spiritually or mentally crippled many of the young men of the period. The writers of the 1910s and the 1920s adopted attitudes of bitterness and dislocation. Certainties seemed impossible in the face of war and social turmoil. In a society at drift, writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot reflected this dislocation in their themes, subjects, and forms. The title of Eliot’s 1922 modernist masterpiece, The Wasteland, conveys this sense of despair clearly.

Critical Overview

The poems in the Ariel series have frequently been overlooked by critics of Eliot’s work. Daniel Harris, however, feels that “Journey of the Magi” holds a “central position in his poetic development” by providing a “bridge between the multiple voices of ‘The Wasteland’ and the single ‘autobiographical’ voice of the poet-questor in ‘Ash Wednesday’.” John H. Timmerman, whose T. S. Eliot’s Ariel Poems provides some of the most detailed analysis of the poem,” notes that before “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot had been struggling to find a new voice that would help him express his renewed spiritual reality. Because it enabled him to find that voice, Timmerman concludes, it has to be one of the more significant pieces of writing in Eliot’s career. Timmerman supports this view with a comment that Eliot made in an interview in The New York Times: “I thought my poetry was over after ‘The Hollow Men”: and it was only because my publishers had started the series of ‘Ariel’ poems and I let myself promise to contribute, that I began again. And writing the ‘Ariel’ pieces released the stream, and led directly to ‘Ash Wednesday’.”

Criticism

Michael Lake

Michael Lake, a published poet who holds an M.A. in English from Eastern Illinois University, currently teaches English in a Denver area community college. In the following essay, Lake submits that “Journey of the Magi” serves as an analogy of the middle point of Eliot’s philosophical journey to find meaning in the modern world.

When approaching T. S. Eliot’s poetry, we must always remember that he was first a philosopher and secondly a poet and critic. This fact, of course, does not reduce his works to mere vents for his philosophical musings. It means, rather, that Eliot’s philosophy and poetry were twin forces fused into a unified whole. Each reinforced and validated the other in a struggle toward deeper insight and more precise expression. Through his poetry, Eliot explored the moral and philosophical issues he thought most critical for the survival of Western civilization. He had come to reject the self-serving sophistry of the middle-class mercantile spirit—what we might now call the urge to reduce all values to that of “the bottom line.” He yearned to return to the perduring values of earlier times, to a vision of “truth,” if you will. In an attempt to portray intimations of an ultimate reality beyond all appearances and subjective opinions, Eliot synthesized all that he had learned from his teachers and his vast reading into an integrated poetic and, most important, modern voice. Irving Babbitt’s classicism and F. H. Bradley’s subjective idealism, Eastern mysticism, and metaphysics; Dante Alighieri’s allegorical journey through human spiritual states; Lancelot Andrewes’s and Richard Hookers’s spirituality and meditational writing style; Charles Baudelaire’s and Jules Laforge’s exposé of the dark side of the human soul through the language of symbolism; and John Donne’s and the other metaphysical poets’ integration of sensibility and intellectuality all combined to inform both Eliot’s worldview and his poetic style. Out of all these influences, however, the one that perhaps shines brightest is that of Dante, a fact acknowledged during the 1948 speech made before presenting Eliot with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Throughout his career, Eliot wove together repeating themes and symbols he had garnered from all of his learning and his life’s experience into new configurations to illustrate, interpret, and challenge the moral world around him.

Written at the time Eliot was converting to High Church Anglicanism, “Journey of the Magi” actually mediates and develops philosophical themes that Eliot had already explored in his early works and that he was to develop further in his later writings. As an opus of his middle period, “Journey of the Magi” marks a shift in Eliot’s philosophical point of view, his poetic style, and his treatment of his preponderant concerns. If we were to draw an analogy between Dante’s Divina Commedia and Eliot’s philosophical and artistic progression, then his early works (particularly The Waste Land) would constitute a trip through the Inferno, his middle works (notably “Ash-Wednesday”) would denote a movement through Purgatorio, and his later works (especially The Four Quartets) would herald an arrival into Paradisio. All of the uncertainty the old Magus bore before the mystery of the Christ child’s birth would therefore exemplify the clinging doubt of the “old life of the flesh” in the midst of purgatorial transfiguration. “Journey of the Magi,” then, embodies a step along Eliot’s own lifelong quest for meaning in an age that had rejected meaning. It is Eliot’s testamentary answer to old Nicodemus’ query to Christ in the Gospel of John. To be “born again from on high,” even after having grown old in an era of unbelief, is indeed possible, but such a transformation does not come without a struggle with the self through time.

As far as the difficulties of spiritual metamorphosis are concerned, it is indeed significant that the speaker of “Journey of the Magi,” like the speakers or personas of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1917, and “Gerontion,” published in 1920, is an elderly man. Discounting some critical assertions that Eliot identified himself with his aged speakers, even in his youthful poems, I suggest, rather, that old men continually recur in Eliot’s early satiric works because old age illustrates so well the human inability to evolve from dysfunctional ways, just like the problems “old dogs” have learning “new tricks.” The pictures Eliot paints of middle and even older age in these early pieces are of defeated, emotionally exhausted, self-conscious, and impotent men living in fear and self-disgust, without hope of fitting into the social structures of the alien world that seems on the verge of devouring them. Without truly great crimes to condemn them, the two old men of these earlier poems appear to be cursed to dwell in a psychic Inferno for a far more insidious crime—for having gone through life without even approaching authenticity. Perhaps if, say, Prufrock had actually acted upon

What Do I Read Next?

  • Irving Howe has edited a collection of essays on The Idea of the Modern in Art and Literature, divided into overview, manifestoes, major movements, and major figures. This 1967 work is very helpful for a student trying to understand the different, and often confusing, strands of modernism.
  • In Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (1980), Charles Hartman not only provides a clear description of this form and its development, but also makes several insightful statements about Eliot’s style.
  • The Chester Mystery Plays: 16 Pageant Plays from the Chester Craft Cycle includes an interesting variation of the story of the adoration of the Magi. It was adapted into modern English in 1960 by Maurice Hussey.
  • Grover Smith’s 1974 analysis, T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning, provides one of the best introductions to Eliot’s poetry.
  • Published in 1984, Peter Ackroyd’s detailed and easy-to-read biography, T. S. Eliot, is helpful to those readers who wish a better understanding of Eliot’s life. Ackroyd includes comments by Eliot that are extremely valuable in assisting with the interpretation of his poetry.
  • One of the art world’s most famous portraits of the Magi is Sandro Botticelli’s famous altar-piece The Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli’s Uffici “Adoration:” A Study in Pictorial Content by Rob Hatfield discusses the inspirations, portraits, and artistic details of this masterpiece.

his seething sexual desires, he would have at least been truly alive. But in “Journey of the Magi,” we can say that the Magus certainly does act with authenticity. He answers the intuited summons and treks out from material comfort into an uncomfortable unknown to seek out a baffling mystery. But like old Simeon of Eliot’s second Ariel poem, “Song

“Journey of the Magi’ ... embodies a step along Eliot’s own lifelong quest for meaning in an age that had rejected meaning.”

for Simeon” (“Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer / Not for me the ultimate vision.”), the Magus cannot fully participate in the mystery that has supplanted the “old dispensation” of his former life. Somehow, after succeeding in his search, the old Magus gets stuck between a Prufrockian reticence to take a chance (in this case, to surrender with love and repentance to the impenetrable mystery he has discovered) and the liberation of a truly integral life.

Indeed, Eliot sought to show the need for being integral, or “complete” and “whole,” by demonstrating the results a lack of integrality has upon human lives. Even the works written before his conversion to Christianity show that all slaves to the passions—those who, unlike Prufrock, freely act upon the promptings of their desires—find neither psychological wholeness nor inward liberty. The Waste Land, for instance, a collage of fragments that repeat facets of an overarching myth, effectively sustains the sense of being held captive in a nightmare. The poem’s very fragmentation metaphorically typifies the general loss of integrality in the poem’s world. Each element of its symbolic terrain reinforces the perception that there is no exit from its hellish pain and enforced loneliness. After all, the mythos of the Fisher King, as described in Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Holy Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance, upon which The Waste Land was based, describes a land sympathetically reduced to barrenness by its ruler’s sexual wound. Eliot found this subsuming myth applicable to the situation he saw in the modern world, because the exchange of lust for love had reduced all human relationships, both between people and with Nature, to the ugliness of utilitarian self-gratification. The reason for this perversion lies in humanity’s failure to heed the lesson found in “What the Thunder Said” (Part Five of The Waste Land): “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.”

Taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, this Sanskrit instruction of the One God, Prajfpati, to gods, men, and demons translates as “Give. Sympathize. Control.” Because without generosity, sympathy, and self-control, civilization is impossible, Eliot eventually turned to the Christian religion to find a wellspring that might at last bring life to the sterile wastes of the modern world.

When compared to The Waste Land, the psychological and spiritual topology of “Journey of the Magi” is relatively unfragmented. The Magi are able to realize “progress” across the poem’s frozen “wasteland,” in spite of the impeding drifts of snow and the “refractory” camels. The carnal lusts of their camel men, “wanting their liquor and women,” cannot stop the company’s headway through the wilderness either. And the Magi are able to resist their own longing for creature comforts—“The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet”—and thus persevere through the wintry desert, the consummate image of the “wages of sin,” or death.

Nevertheless, the Magi find no real relief from death’s ubiquitous presence even when they enter the “temperate valley.” There, the gurgling water and the smell of vegetation, so loathed and feared in the first section of The Waste Land (“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain”), does indeed greet them with hope of new life in this green place. But the group immediately confronts the paradox of death in life written in the language of symbolism, “three trees on the low sky, / And an old white horse gallop[ing] away in the meadow.” Drawing from the New Testament in this poem for his “subsuming myth,” Eliot reveals in these symbolic figures both the Crucifixion, Christ’s salvific death, and the Apocalypse, humanity’s existential death because of sin. Further on, the Magi encounter more troubling omens, “a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, / Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, / And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.” Even if we follow some critics and see in the “vine-leaves” a positive reminder of the image of Christ as “the Vine” (as found in the Gospel of John), these emblems still foretell Christ’s passion and death, just as the Magi approach to witness his birth. For this reason, the old Magus, who narrates the Tate, later exclaims, “[W]ere we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” “Journey of the Magi” concerns itself with the same mythic quandary as did The Waste Land: sex, or, the act of generation, is intimately connected to death itself (“I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different.”) However, in “Journey of the Magi” a subtle change has taken place in the way the antinomy between birth and death is expressed. In The Waste Land, a “sexual wound” casts a shadow across the entire landscape. We observe scenes of frigidity, impotence, rape, fear, and loathing. In “Journey of the Magi” we find a birth “Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,” but we also perceive a way to “give, sympathize, and control” ourselves by identifying with that Death, which in turn becomes a new birth, through complete repentance, something the old Magus seems incapable of doing.

“Ash-Wednesday,” the three parts of which were finally published as one poem in 1930, explores the difficulty of securing repentance. The speaker certainly does not “hope to turn again” to all of the allurements of the flesh that once had held him bound, for he has lived through enough of life’s vanities to understand their utter emptiness. By the same token, however, he struggles to find the hope to turn again and find true repentance in “[t]he dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.” As in “Journey of the Magi,” the speaker finds himself locked in a sort of breech birth, stuck between two worlds and two lives, “the time of tension between dying and birth.” And yet, “Ash-Wednesday,” more than “Journey of the Magi,” betrays a passionate urgency to cross over to spiritual rebirth. The speaker actually passes through the same symbolic landscape found in The Waste Land, but now the desert has become the place of purgation and “Even among these rocks, / Our peace in His will” seems to grow. The life-filled earth, rife with the sounds of running waters, is now archetypally transformed into an icon of the Blessed Virgin, upon whom the speaker calls to “Suffer me not to be separated.” This state represents a great improvement over that of the aged Magus, who finds himself “no longer at ease” in the old life but unable to cross over into the new. Eliot’s persona has indeed climbed much higher upon the “seven-storey mountain” Dante described in his Purgatorio, but the ultimate goal still eludes him.

However, it is an exaggeration to suggest that some of sort of “Beatific Vision” is found in any of Eliot’s works, not even in the Four Quartets, so the analogy to Dante’s Divina Commedia is not exactly accurate. Yet there is still a relative “ascent” into certitude when these later works are compared to Eliot’s earlier ones, especially to the “Journey of the Magi.” Perhaps a better simile to use in describing the four poems of the Four Quartets is to liken them to “steps” on St. John Climacus’ “Ladder” or the “nights” found in the ascetical works of St. John of the Cross. Like “Journey of the Magi” and the other works we have examined in this essay, the “Quartets” concern themselves with the antinomy between life and death, or, more specifically, between time and eternity. The seeming opposites are revealed to be one, for example, in “Burnt Norton,” the first of the four. To be at “the still point of the turning world” is really to be “[w]here past and future are gathered” and to discover that to “be conscious is not to be in time.” But it is also to realize that “[o]nly through time time is conquered.” This is really the same mystery the old Magus cannot fathom, that death is really a passageway to a new birth. But see how the speaker in “Burnt Norton” has climbed so much higher on the spiral staircase of divine ascent in comparison with the old Magus. If not Paradisio, the speaker has certainly reached the seventh storey and is now assured of complete conversion, or, crossing over to the new life of the Spirit. He has learned the lessons of Prajfpati. One can only give to others, sympathize with their sufferings, and control one’s selfishness by intensely struggling against the self and embracing the death of the self so that the One Self might be “all in all.” The end of “Burnt Norton” sums up the results of Eliot’s spiritual and philosophical quest quite succinctly:

Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Source: Michael Lake, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer provides an explanation for the tone of cynicism in a poem about spiritual enlightenment.

“It is the very humanity of Eliot’s Magus that makes him a significant spokespersonan Everyman of spiritual conundrumfor the doubt that lies at the root of faith.”

T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” presents the dramatic monologue of a fleshed-out character who complains, feels the cold, and suffers doubt. It is the very humanity of Eliot’s Magus that makes him a significant spokesperson—an Everyman of spiritual conundrum—for the doubt that lies at the root of faith. The sense of uncertainty that Eliot’s Magus perceives in the relationship between life and death is a void that can only be filled by doubt; yet Eliot is fully aware that doubt is the foundation of faith. Faith, Eliot believed, was not a fixed sense of realization but the gap between opposites—the realm of paradox where the discrepancy that cannot be explained is still felt and perceived and understood, not just through acceptance and comprehension, but through more questioning, more uncertainty, and more doubt. In the opening lines of his poem “East Coker” from The Four Quartets, Eliot cited Mary Queen of Scots’ famous last words, “In my beginning is my end / In my end is my beginning,” a statement that he later used as the epitaph for his own columbarium at St. Michael’s Church in East Coker. For Eliot, the paradox inherent in such pronouncements on the relativity of opposites houses the meaning of both his beliefs and his trust in them.

Eliot’s Magus has trouble with both pain and pleasure; in fact, he somewhat distrusts all the experience of the flesh. “A cold coming we had of it” is balanced against “There were times we regretted / The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And silken girls bringing sherbet.” Reality, as Eliot seems to suggest, is an illusion wherein the only things that can be trusted as certainties are death and birth. But in the end, however, the boundary between even those two experiences cannot be trusted. This begs the question of what reality is to the Magus. The answer is that there are two realities: the temporal reality represented by the journey narrative and the extemporal reality that cannot entirely be grasped—a reality that is represented by the epiphany or moment of revelation that the wise men experience when they behold the birth of the Christ child. But like all great epiphanies, the Magus’ revelation of divine truth is something that ultimately cannot be understood in terms of either conscious or spiritual understanding; therefore, what the poem alludes to in its conclusion is anagogic—the perception of a spiritual experience that cannot be logically or physically explained. This moment of anagogy (what Aquinas termed the highest plane of theological perception) is responsible for the tone of cynicism that infiltrates both the narrative of the poem and the personality behind the dramatic monologue.

The poem begins rather simply, with the description of the hardships of a long journey that is fraught with discomfort. The discomforts—“The ways deep and weather sharp,” “the camel men cursing and grumbling / And running away,” “the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,” and “the villages dirty and charging high prices”—are reinforced by the memory of the comfort that the kings left behind them in their pursuit of the wandering star. The sudden breakthrough in this awful situation, when they finally “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,” does little to move the Magus. In the end, the breakthrough is only deemed as “(you may say) satisfactory.”

In reality, Eliot borrows the opening of “Journey of the Magi” almost directly from a 1622 Christmas sermon by English cleric Lancelot Andrewes that describes the rough journey the Magi experienced on their way to Bethlehem. In Eliot’s 1926 essay on Lancelot Andrewes, he deemed Andrewes’s portrayal as a “flashing phrase” that “never deserts the memory.” The narrative impact on Eliot aside, what Andrewes was attempting to do in his sermon was to show that the pursuit of divine revelation, the unmasking of greater realities, is no easy process. The process, however, is worth the effort, because the outcome is an avenue to understanding the nature of God and the relationship between God and Man. That message, though, is not quite explicit in the poem’s ending.

What Eliot is alluding to is the paradox of Christ’s triumph, the triumph of life over death. This paradox, which lies at the heart of Christianity, is the realization that everlasting life and salvation can only be achieved through the death of Christ. To witness the early infancy of the Christ child, as the Magus of Eliot’s poem does, is not to celebrate a birth but to acknowledge a death that must inevitably happen if Mankind is to be saved. The moment, in this light, is not one of happiness but of sadness and reservation. The sadness of the birth is subtly underscored by Eliot in his use of the term “old white horse” in the second stanza, a reference, as some critics have suggested, to Revelations 6:2 and 19:11-14 where Christ, the conqueror of evil, rides a white horse. Likewise, Christ’s crucifixion is foreshadowed by the phrase “Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,” an allusion to both to the pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Christ and to the soldiers who diced for Christ’s robe on Golgotha. Not only is the world a place of hardship and rough going, it is also a realm of omens and foreshadowings that are meant to be read and interpreted as part of a much broader picture.

In this world fraught with meaning on so many levels—a world where the awareness of the intellect and the spirit is constantly challenged—Eliot seems to be drawing on the presence of the miraculous, an almost animate universe, where the future is foretold in the most menial of contemporary signs. For someone who is such a “Christian” poet, Eliot exercises an almost Ovidian sense of imagistic auguring. “Journey of the Magi,” in this respect, is not unlike the world of The Waste Land, where every detail, every event and action, is reduced not only to a semiotic sign but to a broader, cultural and spiritual symbol. In both The Waste Land and “Journey of the Magi,” the reader encounters a world that is meant to be read much like the way Dante examines his world in Divina Commedia. This subtle exercise of symbols has two major impacts on the poem. On the one hand, the use of symbols as both foreshadowings and allusions enriches the reading of the poem, because each reference points to a myriad of possible readings. At the same time, however, the symbols, by their very nature as interpretive material, leave the poem open-ended and slightly inconclusive, so that what a reader is meant to see in the poem is not a specific message from the poet but a reflection of the depth of their own understanding, faith, and intelligence. It is no wonder, then, that the persona of Eliot’s poem sounds a very definite note of cynicism. His struggle is not just the struggle of the journey, but the challenge of understanding his own faith and his own sense of spiritual reasoning. The reader has to wonder if the cynicism sounded in the final stanza of the poem is the result of the bad trip or of an inherent misanthropy on the part of the Magus. When he is confronted by the birth of the Christ child, he reminds himself and the reader, “I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different,” His vision of the birth of the child is perceived as “Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” All this, he notes, is etched in his memory. He declares, “I would do it again,” but calls upon the reader in a rhetorical gesture to sort out the paradox that he witnessed. In this respect, Eliot is overtly reissuing the challenge to the reader that he has already introduced through the language of symbolism. The reader must sort out his or her own feelings about the relationship between life and death that the poem presents. The Magus concludes that he and the other Magi returned to their palaces “in the old dispensation / With an alien people clutching their gods.” The suggestion is that the Magus is surrounded by paganism—by a world that is rough and embraced by a moral and spiritual vacuum. He advises the reader, “I should be glad of another death.” There is a great uncertainty about whose death is being discussed here. Is it the Magus’ death? Is this the final pronouncement of a travel-worn philosopher who has gone in search of birth and found only death? Is he disappointed at the outcome? Is he troubled by the paradox? Or, is the Magus being ironic about Christ’s death, which is foretold by the child’s birth? Is he seeking his own salvation? Is he seeking the redemption of mankind from the rough world of the taverns and the pagans that the poem so vividly describes?

The answer may lie in Eliot’s essay “Lancelot Andrewes,” where the poet quotes the original sermon by the early-seventeenth century cleric that he “steals” for the opening lines of “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot examines the vivid description of the Magi’s journey that Andrewes uses to illustrate his sermon on the nature and purpose of Christ’s birth. “Andrewe’s emotion,” says Eliot, “is purely contemplative; it is not personal, it is wholly evoked by the object of contemplation, to which it is adequate; his emotions wholly contained in and explained by the object.” In other words, as Eliot sees it, the Magus of the poem is seeking the objective experience of salvation through the subjective aspect of personal hardship; and although the hardship of the Magi is, by no means, even approximate to the suffering of Christ, it is an avenue to understanding the paradox that exists when the distinction between life and death is blurred. The “death” that the Magus “should be glad of” is the salvation of Mankind, the “beginning in the end.” As in The Waste Land, the true meaning of life can only be realized if one is prepared to make a personal sacrifice, either of hardship or of life itself. That is the poem’s final demand. In Eliot’s world, artifice is relegated to a lower position on the ladder of what is important, well behind the physical experience of the world, the intellectual apprehension of that existence, and the spiritual life that lies beyond both. True salvation is not of the flesh but can be achieved through the flesh if one is willing to see beyond the reality at hand.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

Marisa Anne Pagnattaro

Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, J.D., Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer and a Robert E. West Teaching Fellow in the English department at the University of Georgia. In the following essay, Pagnattaro explores Christian imagery of the birth and death of Christ in Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.”

In his essay “Religion and Literature,” T. S. Eliot complained that modern literature: repudiates, or is wholly ignorant of, our most fundamental and important beliefs; that in consequence, its tendency is to miss no “experience” that presents itself, and to sacrifice itself, if it make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future. Eliot most likely exempted his own work from this criticism, for much of his poetry considers issues of faith, reflecting his own engagement with religion. Eliot was born into an actively Unitarian family in the United States. Biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot (who died a year before Eliot’s birth), a Unitarian minister “who left Harvard Divinity School in order to establish that faith in the frontier wilderness,” exercised a “pervasive and dominant presence” in the Eliot household. Eliot later rejected these beliefs when he converted to the Church of England in 1927. Nearly forty, Eliot was baptized and received into the Anglican Church just a few months before he became a British citizen. His “Journey of the Magi,” which explores the birth and death of Christ, is Eliot’s first so-called “conversion” poem.

“Journey of the Magi” is a kind of dramatic monologue in which one of the three Magi recounts his experience of traveling to the place of Christ’s birth. As such, for much of the twentieth century, the poem was frequently viewed as merely a Christmas poem. Literary critic Daniel A. Harris, however, argues that the poem deserves much more than “rudimentary biblical glosses.” He claims that “Journey of the Magi” “makes an obvious bridge between the multiple voices of The Waste Land and the single, ‘autobiographical’ voice of the poet-quester in Ash Wednesday (1927-1930).” In his essay “Language, History, and Text in Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’” Harris contends that “Eliot’s unconventional structuring is precisely what generates a vision of the historical process both more complex and more focused than anything he had previously attempted.” Importantly, this argument emphasizes the anachronistic aspect of “Journey of the Magi”; inasmuch as the Magus incorporates events from the Bible that occurred well after the journey to Bethlehem, Eliot skews the sense of time. The Magus cannot literally be “remembering” thoughts from the trip could not yet have happened. This distortion of time seriously complicates and, at the same time, enhances the traditional portrayal of Christ’s birth and death.

The poem draws the general story from the beginning of the New Testament, in which the Magi set out to follow the star of Bethlehem. Divided into three stanzas, the poem reflects this journey: the first stanza describes the beginning of the quest; the next stanza marks the arrival at their destination; and the final stanza contemplates the event that is now far removed in time. In his essay “The Sacrament of Penance in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’” A. James Wohlpart views the structure of the poem as incorporating the three stages of the Sacrament of Penance: contrition (spiritual sorrow), confession, (acknowledging sin) and satisfaction (expiation of sin). Wohlpart, however, argues that the stages do not appear in their usual sequence. He asserts that Eliot rearranged the process, opening with contrition, moving on to satisfaction in the second stanza, then concluding with confession in stanza three, thereby “suggesting that the soul, in its journey toward Christ and heavenly perfection, akin the journey of the Magi, can never rest in the certainty of perfection but must be continually engaged in the process of becoming perfect.”

The first stanza details the journey that A. David Moody observes is presented as “banalities of romantic travelers” “in a manner which arrives at no vision of experience.” In his extended study of Eliot’s work, Thomas Sterns Eliot: Poet, Moody continues, noting that for Eliot, the “emphasis is all upon Christ’s entering the world to bring its life to an end.” Thus, for his speakers, including the Magus, “Christ’s birth means their death.” Perhaps this is why Moody speculates that the Magus’s voice at the beginning of “Journey of the Magi” is “tired as if repeating the too well known.” This journey is well known to readers of Matthew 2:1-12, which provides that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, the Magi went to King Herod and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” They then set out to follow the star of Bethlehem to find the child. Eliot imagines the details of the trip, focusing on the cold “long journey” in the “very dead of winter.” The journey sounds tedious for the Magi and the camels, who are “galled” and “sore-footed” as they lie down in the snow.

As the stanza continues, the Magus admits that they felt the loss of the luxury of “summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet.” In sharp contrast, the experience of the trip lacked such indulgences. Instead of summer pleasures, the Magi encountered gambling and cursing camel men “wanting their liquor and women,” “night-fires going out,” “the lack of shelter,” hostile cities, and “villages dirty and charging high prices.” Finally, the Magus bluntly confesses, “A hard time we had of it” and admits that by the end of the journey, they “preferred to travel all night / Sleeping in snatches.” Nagged by voices that “this was all folly,” their drastic action was ostensibly desirable to reach their destination more quickly. The final lines of the first stanza are also reminiscent of a 1622 Nativity sermon by Lancelot Andrewes on Christmas Day. In his essay on Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot quotes similar lines regarding the coming of the wise men from the East: “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the ‘very dead of winter.’”

Eliot’s reiteration of the hardship the Magi suffered gives way to a series of images in the second stanza that were described by Arthur R. Broes as “an emblematic life of Christ in miniature.” The speaker conveys a sense of relief as they finally come to a “temperate valley” “smelling of vegetation.” Here, they encounter a “running stream” that has been widely interpreted to be like the baptismal waters of the Jordan river. When Jesus was baptized, “heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’”

“‘Journey of the Magi,’ which explores the birth and death of Christ, is Eliot’s first, so-called ‘conversion’ poem.”

(Matthew 3:13-17). Accordingly, this baptismal image creates a new sense of hope in the poem. The “water-mill beating in the darkness” suggests Christ’s “winnowing fork ... [that] he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). The next image, “three trees on the low sky,” recall the three crosses on Calvary (Luke 23:32-33). This crucifixion image leads into the next line of the poem, in which Christ as conqueror rides on a white horse: “And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.” In the Bible’s book of Revelation, a white horse appears “whose rider is called Faithful and True ... his name is the Word of God,” and on “his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (6:2 and 19:11-14). This powerful image of the Second Coming is followed by a number of Biblical allusions, primarily relating to the betrayal of Christ, which can be seen readily in Eliot’s next lines: “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 wine-skins.” The overriding image is that of Judas Iscariot who went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” (Matthew 26:14-15). The response was to count out thirty silver coins. From that moment, Judas watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over. This betrayal is coupled with another event in which the soldiers who crucified Jesus divided his garments among themselves and cast lots for the clothing (John 19:23-24). Lastly, the wineskins call to mind the following parable: “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). Taken together, these images suggest that there is no hope for the irreverent inhabitants of the tavern who, like old wineskins, could do nothing but spoil the new words of Christ. Finding nothing redeeming, the Magi continued their quest, arriving “not a moment too soon / Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.” These final lines of the second stanza do suggest a kind of ecclesiastical satisfaction; the completion of the difficult journey “satisfied” a kind of sacrament of penance.

In the last stanza, the speaker lets readers know that he is recalling events from “a long time ago,” noting that he “would do it again.” This is more, however, than merely a nostalgic look at the past. The Magus questions:

... 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.

As David Moody notes, even though the “Magus is baffled by the apparent contradictions of Birth and Death, and is left simply wanting to die ... at the level of ideas and meanings the paradox is easily resolved.” Because “it is able to interpret the event from a Christian viewpoint,” “the mind of the poem exceeds that of the Magus.” Thought of in another way, readers who are aware of the larger religious significance of the images bring knowledge to the poem that the Magus did not have. In turn, this knowledge gives them greater insight into such mysteries. Appropriately, the poem concludes with the Magus’s realization that the “old dispensation” is gone, replaced by the “new” dispensation, Christianity. The Magus implicitly echoes Paul’s words about the dispensation of “God’s grace,” that mystery of Christ was made known to him by revelation, and that Christian followers can likewise come to understand that this “mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:2-6).

Throughout “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot certainly underscores the importance of the Magus’s sacrifice and the function of his story to encourage readers to understand the magnitude of the birth and death of Christ. An interesting biographical side note to “Journey of the Magi” is the effect the poem had on a young woman named Valerie Fletcher, who ultimately become Eliot’s second wife. At the age of fourteen, Fletcher heard John Gielgud’s recording of “Journey of the Magi.” Years later, she reported in a 1972 interview in the Observer that the poem “was extraordinary”; she felt “I just had to get to Tom, to work with him.” After finishing school, Fletcher did, indeed, get a job as Eliot’s secretary; approximately eight years later, in 1957, the couple was wed.

Source: Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter, T. S. Eliot: A Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Barbour, Brian M., “Poetic Form in ‘Journey of the Magi,’” Renascence, spring 1988, pp. 189-96.

Broes, Arthur R., “T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi”: An Explication,” Xavier Review, Vol. 5, 1966, pp. 129-31.

Drew, Elizabeth, T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

Eliot, T. S., “Religion and Literature” (1935) and “Lancelot Andrewes” (1926), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Eliot, Valerie, interview in Observer, February 20, 1972.

Harris, Daniel A., “Language, History, and Text in Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’” PMLA, 1980, pp. 838-56.

Kenner, Hugh, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, New York: Citadel Press, 1964.

Moody, A. David, Thomas Sterns Eliot: Poet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Williamson, George, A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.

Wohlpart, A. James, “The Sacrament of Penance in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’” English Language Notes, Vol. 30, No. 1, September 1992, pp. 55-60.

For Further Study

Brown, R. D., “Revelation in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’” Renascence, Spring 1972, pp. 136-40.

The last line of the second section in “Journey of the Magi” has often puzzled readers who find the word “satisfactory” too weak. This article provides an in-depth study of Eliot’s reasons for using that phrase.

Fraser, G. G., The Modern Writer and His World, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964.

Fraser explains the different meanings of “modernism,” tracing its development in poetry, drama, the novel, and criticism, and placing these literary developments in the context of the social and political background.

Tamplin, Ronald, A Preface to T. S. Eliot, Harlowe, Essex: Longman House, 1988.

This work provides a clear and easily understandable introduction to Eliot’s poetry, plays, and criticism. It is an excellent starting point for a student who wants an overview of Eliot’s work.

Timmerman, John H., T. S. Eliot’s Ariel Poems: The Politics of Recovery, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Timmerman provides an extremely detailed description of many aspects of “Journey of the Magi,” including its role in creating Eliot’s poetic renewal, the historical background, and sources.

About this article

Journey of the Magi

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article