Journey of the Magi is a poem that explores the journey the wise men took when following the star to Bethlehem where the Christ child was born. It is a metaphorical poem, representing both birth and death, renewal and spiritual rebirth.
The speaker is a magi whose narrative is split into three stanzas, distinct parts:
- the journey to the birthplace and the doubt.
- the arrival, the prefiguring and satisfaction.
- the reflection and acknowledgement of a new faith.
Interestingly, there is no mention of gold, frankincense and myrrh, a star or the name Jesus; there is no indication that these magi are Persian astrologers, Zoroastrian priests come to welcome the messiah.
- The focus is more on the process, the inner and outer journeys that a human (and humanity) has to undertake in order to experience spiritual rebirth. Here, the event, the actual birth, which was witnessed by the magi, takes second place to the main theme of change – death of the old dispensation, birth of the new.
The year this poem was written, 1927, was an important year for Eliot. Not only did he gain British citizenship but he converted to Anglo-Catholicism which he committed to for life.
Worshipping in church became a crucial part of his routine and directly influenced the creation of Journey of the Magi:
‘I had been thinking about it in church 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.’
Eliot had also done his research, using lines from a sermon given by one Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1622 to kick-start his own poem. These are the words from that Christmas sermon:
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. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’
Eliot the poet used these lines, written three hundred years before, altering them only a little for his opening five lines.
- What makes Eliot’s poem so powerful is the fact that he makes one of the magi, a magus, the speaker and turns the narrative into a psycho-spiritual journey, typical of the pilgrim yet interwoven with that of the esoteric, religious teacher.
- The theme of the poem is the effect of spiritual/cultural events on individual identity and society; the process of renewal, the journey of the human psyche through history.
- Journey of the Magi specifically focuses on the epiphany (Mark 2. 1-12), despite the lack of named references to this event. The speaker is deeply affected by the birth, the shock waves changing lives for ever, alienating those around him, inviting his own demise.
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.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, 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.
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:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
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 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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
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
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,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Journey of the Magi is both monologue and metaphor. Eliot wrote it to substantiate his own conversion to Anglo-Catholicism and to emphasise the profound spiritual and cultural changes that occur when certain events take place.
The speaker’s voice is that of a magus, one of the three travelling ‘wise men’ or Persian priests (or Zoroastrian astrologers) and the narrative is split into three separate sections:
- Stanza 1 – the frustration and doubt of such a journey.
- Stanza 2 – the anticipation and understated satisfaction upon arrival.
- Stanza 3 – the reflection on birth and death and alienation.
The first five lines are adapted from an actual sermon given by Lancelot Andrewes in 1622. Eliot took them and shaped them into this wintry opening, with long vowels, enjambment, some repetition and a feeling of slight dread.
An inauspicious start then. This first stanza is a tale of woe. Just note the language:
cold coming…worst time…such a long journey…The ways deep/weather sharp…The very dead of winter…galled, sorefooted, refractory (stubborn)…we regretted…cursing and grumbling…
On and on through the whole 20 lines. It’s interesting to see how Eliot reinforces this idea of difficulty by repeating line openings…And the…And the…And the…this use of anaphora works really well, reflecting the plod of the camels and the monotony of the journey.
A feeling of hardship and challenge emerges as the stanza progresses, but note that the magi had also experienced the high life for a while – relaxing in summer palaces – perhaps at the start of their journey, or back in their homeland, when blue skies and silken girls with sherbet (historically, a Persian soft drink) made life enjoyable.
So the magi had to endure the challenges of real life as they journeyed on. They were tested to the limit and in the end decided to travel at night to avoid the sordid unpleasantries of cities and towns.
Some think this part of the journey a kind of purification, similar to that of the 16th century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross who wrote his poem Dark Night of the Soul, about existential crisis, desolation and fulfilment.
The speaker certainly had doubts about their ‘mission’ – thinking it foolish (all folly) – and the voices could have been their own, or those from dreams and nightmares.
This second stanza brings some relief and represents the second stage of the spiritual process. However, these lines also bring into question the idea of time. The magi arrive at dawn, seeking information (on the whereabouts of the birth?) and manage to get there in the evening, not a moment too soon, which is an odd phrase.
In between the speaker describes the various things they come across which are all symbolically related to the future life of the Christ figure.
There is much allusion, from the three trees (crucifixion on Calvary) to the wine-skins (the Parable) the meanings are clear.
It’s as if the speaker is having a premonition, yet doesn’t know the significance.
And that curious half-line – it was (you may say) satisfactory.- suggests that the speaker wasn’t too impressed with the place of birth, was even a little disappointed. Perhaps this also refers to the idea that the place, although important, isn’t as crucial to change as the journey itself.
Here the magi looks back, reflecting on the event itself, and coming to the conclusion that in birth there is always death. They learnt a hard lesson, one that is personal yet also universal.
Note the syntax stretching and narrowing as the speaker puts the experience into perspective and asks that most potent of questions: Birth or Death?
Out of the old comes the new and with it the death in the birth. Spiritual, cultural and psychic processes all undergo change and transformation. What was once familiar now seems alien.
Life is a journey, a struggle, but all humans have to go through it, often reaching moments in their lives when a threshold has to be gotten over. Sometimes new understanding has to take place in order for this to happen.
Journey of the Magi is a free verse poem of 43 lines, made up of 3 stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter (metre in British English) and the lines are of varied length.
When words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant they’re said to be alliterative. This adds sound texture and interest for the reader:
cold coming…ways deep and the weather…camel men cursing…Sleeping in snatches…singing in our ears, saying…That this…dawn we came down…snow line, smelling…And an…door dicing…And arriving at…say satisfactory…were we…thought they…
There are several examples in the second stanza – references to the life of Christ and the Bible, looking into the future :
- line 23 where the running stream is living water (John 4.10)
- line 24 has three trees which relate to the three crosses (Luke 23.32)
- line 25 has an old white horse which relates to the horse of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6.2)
- line 26 with vine-leaves which represent the true vine, Christ (Mark 2.22/23-28)
- line 27 has dicing for pieces of silver which relates to both Judas the traitor and the roman soldiers casting for lots at the crucifixion (John 19.23/24 and Matthew 26.14/15)
- line 28 has empty wine-skins which relates to the parable of the wine-skins (Mark 2.22)
The repeated use of a word or phrase to reinforce meaning:
Stanzas 1 and 2 – And the…
When words are close together in a line and have similar sounding vowels:
very dead…And the camels…galled, sorefooted…There were…silken girls bringing…Then/men…With/singing in…below the snow…stream/beating…three trees…And an/galloped…hands at…may say…time ago, I...
When a line continues on into the next without punctuation and the sense is maintained. The reader is encouraged to flow into the next line with hardly a hint of a pause.
So look for lines 2, 8, 11,14,19 in the first stanza; lines 29, 30 in the second and lines 33, 34, 35 and 38 in the third. In particular, lines 33-35 are syntactically challenging and the enjambment plays a major role in how those lines are read.
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005