Journey of the magi
Journey of the Magi is the first poem written by Eliot following his conversion back to Christianity. It offers a retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men, and mixes the pessimism of the early twentieth century with the optimism of someone witnessing the birth of Christ.
The speaker is one of the Magi and presents their journey as difficult and tiring: ‘A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey.’ He continues to recount the challenges they faced, such as the camels they travel with proving irritable, and feelings of regret towards leaving ‘the summer places on slopes, the terraces / And the silken girls bringing sherbet.’ The first stanza serves to paint a picture of a tiring, depressing odyssey, that none of the men are very convinced is worth it – they hear voices ‘saying / That this was all folly.’
The second stanza begins with a tone of optimism; the men enter a ‘temperate valley,’ with the weather symbolising hope. There is much organic imagery, which has the effect of injecting the poem with the force of life, and contrasts with the arid imagery of the opening stanza. The Magi ask men at a tavern for directions, but they provide none. They eventually find the stable where the birth occurred by themselves, and comment that ‘it was (you might say) satisfactory.’ The dispassionate tone used while describing something as momentous and supposedly awe-inspiring as the birth of Jesus Christ reflects the inability of the men to recognise the occasion for what it is, and also the way in which their journey has sapped them of their energy and excitement. In turn, this can be understood to be a representation of the way in which modern life similarly deprives individuals of their energy for life and wears away our ability to feel any emotion at all, irrespective of what it is directed towards.
The next stanza ostensibly begins with a jump in time: the speaker is now reflecting on that night – it was ‘a long time ago’ but affirms that ‘I would do it again.’ That commitment is qualified, however, by his enduring inability to understand whether ‘we were led all that way for / Birth or Death?’ That the Magi is uncertain of whether he witnessed a birth or death is startling, and speaks to his overall inability to recognise the beauty or nature of life itself. The next few lines, ‘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.’ Reveals the meaning of his question to be that by witnessing the birth of Jesus, the Magi’s understanding of Birth and Death underwent a revision – they thought they were separate, but no longer do. With the closing lines, ‘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.’ The Magi reveals that the birth of Jesus marked the end of one time and the beginning of another, where people such as himself were forced to confront their declining relevance – here, Eliot blurs the lines of history, with the implication being that modernity followed Jesus’ birth, and that the Magi can no longer cling to their authority as they did prior to it.