Journey of the Magi By T. S. Eliot
‘Journey of the Magi’, is one of the four Ariel Poems written by Eliot during 1927 and 1930. It is in the form of a monologue in which a magus, one of the Three Wise Men who came from the East to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus, narrates their journey long after the event, and analyses its impact on their imagination.
The Magi were leading the pagan way of life which Christ came to destroy. Without understanding the import of the Incarnation the Magi accept the new faith. But they are reluctant to cut off their affinities with the pagan life. To them the journey, which is “such a long journey”, is symbolic of the death of the old faith and the birth of a new one. The situation of the Magi told in the New Testament story (Mathew ii. 1-2)5 is similar to the situation of the poet who, a born Protestant, has converted himself to Anglo-Catholicism. The poem is therefore apparently traditional, but intensely personal inwardly. Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic in 1927. The conversion shocked his friends and readers.
However, his early poems and essays had shown hints of the direction in which his spiritual interests were moving. ‘The Journey of the Magi’ and the Ariel Poems confirmed his religious transition.
The poem is also symbolic of the predicament of the human soul unable to relinquish the past and receive the present, which it intuitively accepts. The struggle, confusion and uneasiness in the mind of the Magus are part of Eliot’s spiritual quest ending in the conversion of his religious faith. Like the Magi, the poet also passed through “a painful rather than a joyful transformation”.
The poem also illustrates Eliot’s theory of poetic composition. He makes use of images drawn form his own experience as part of the Magus’s prophetic narration of the crucifixion. The combination is strange and, according to Eliot, such strange combination of images-traditional as well as personal- incteases the depth of feeling. In the essay, “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”: he explains:
“Why for all of us, out of all that we have heard, felt, in a life time, do certain images recur, charged with emotion rather than others? Thre song of the 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 Frenchc railway junction where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling in which we cannot peer”.
The Content of the Poem
The Magi were the three wise men from the East who brought gifts for the infant Christ. One of the Magi describes the hardships of their journey to the birth- place of Jesus. The way and the weather were unwholesome. The biting cold of the winter in December (Christ was born in December) stood in direct contrast with the pleasing warmth of the summer in the East from where they came. The cities, towns and villages through which they travelled were dirty, costly, hostile and unfriendly. They got little shelter and had less sleep. Reaching a temperate valley they smelt vegetation, heard the sound of a running stream and a water- mill, and saw three trees like three crosses and a white horse galloping away. In a tavern at an open door six men were dicing for pieces of silver. They were drunk and they kicked the empty wineskins with their feet. The hardships of the journey, the hostility of the place and the moral degeneration of the people led the wise men to regret for leaving behind their pleasure palaces with the silken girls bringing sherbet. Their mind’s tongue also whispered that their endeavour was all folly-At evening they reached the place of birth. It was a satisfactory experience. For, they got undoubtedly the evidence of a Birth. But it was not a revelation. When they returned to their former kingdoms, they found themselves alien among people who still clung to their old gods. The birth of Christ was the death of the Magi. They had experienced the bitter agony of a new faith.
They would be glad of another death as an escape from that “hard and bitter agony”, the dilemma of spiritual transformation.
Magi: (an Arabic word) wise men. They were identified as kings. They were three in number. Names were also given to them.
Summary of The Journey of the Magi
‘The Journey of the Magi’ is one among the four ‘Ariel Poems’ written by Eliot soon after his conversion to Catholicism. The agony of parting with one faith and embracing another is therefore the theme of the poem. In order to express this feeling, Eliot, according to his poetic practice, chooses the biblical alibi of the journey of the three Wise Men f rom the East to Bethlehem to see the Incarnation. Eliot believes that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’ So to escape from his emotion of agony and his personality, he dissolves himself in the emotion and personality of the Magi placed in a similar situation.
The poem is in the form of a monologue. One of the Magi, long after their journey, narrates the event in the end he analyses with uneasiness the impact of the journey on their imagination. He accepts the birth of the new faith. But he does not understand its significance. He is also unwilling to relinguish his pagan way of life which Christ has come to destroy. His “hard and bitter agony is as painful as that of the poet who is enchained to the past and unable to submit to a transition.
The Magi began journey during the worst time of the year. It was the very dead of winter. The journey was long and the ways were deep and hard. The camels on which they travelled were galled, sore-footed and refractory. They often lay down in the melting snow. The Wise Men felt sorry for leaving their summer palaces and the silken girls bringing sherbet. The camel men cursed complained and ran far away for want of liquor and women. They had no nightfires or shelter. The cities were hostile and the towns unfriendly. The villages were dirty and changed his sprices. At last they decided to travel by night sleeping only in snatches. All along, their voice of reason was reminding them that their action was foolish.
In the morning they reached a temperate valley where there were vegetation, a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness. Away on the low sky they saw three trees. An old white horse was seen galloping away in the meadow, then they came to a tavern with vine leaves over the lintel. At the open door of the tavern six men were dicing for pieces of silver. They were kicking with their feet the wine skins they had emptied.
Still they did not get any information about the Divine Child. So they continued their journey. At evening they found the place. They arrived just in time. And it was a satisfactory experience.
All this happened a long time ago. But one of the Magi remembers everything afresh he is doubtful whether such a long journey ended in Birth or Death. He is confident of a new Birth, the birth of Christ. He is witness to the event. But unlike other births, this Birth is agonizing. For when they returned to their old kingdoms, they found their people alien with their old gods. To escape from the “hard and biter agony” the magus wishes another death to come, the death of the old faith.
Thus, the poem is impersonal with an intensely personal note. It symbolizes the spiritual revolution caused by the advent of Christ. It also signifies the poet’s agony of converting himself from Protestant belief to Catholic faith. The impersonality of the poem rests upon the choice of the biblical theme and the use of personal images in such a way as to evoke symbolic significance. Allusions to past events and common images with symbolic value are so blended as to produce an emotion which is general as well as personal.
“Journey of the Magi” unfolds with a quote about a cold and troublesome journey. The poem portrays the pain involved in accepting the spiritual change. From the very title of the poem, it is suggestive that this is the journey of the Three Wise Men, or Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. After the opening quote, the poem elaborates on the difficulties of travel, including grumpy camels, wishing for home (home being warm, palatial, and full of girls and servants), fires going out, unfriendly and expensive towns, and a distinct lack of places to sleep. The speaker notes that the Magi preferred to just travel all night for these reasons and that through their travels, a little voice in their heads kept suggesting that maybe this whole thing was all for nothing.
Then, the narrator goes on to tell of the Magi’s arrival in Bethlehem, a place he describes as “a temperate valley”. They still can’t find any information about where they were supposed to go from the villagers, however, so they eventually have to find the stable in which they were to witness the birth of the baby Jesus. The trio arrives just in time.
The last part of the poem is more blatantly the Magus reminiscing about the story (“all this was a long time ago, I remember”), and in his recollection, he seems to be doubtful about whether or not the birth was a good or bad, replacing as it would his own religion and culture. In fact, at the end of the poem, he seems to regard it as a bad thing indeed, with the Magus wishing for his own death alongside the death of his peoples’ conventional beliefs. Stanza I
“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.”
GLOSSARY AND NOTES
A cold coming we had of it – these are the words of the Elizabethan theologian Bishop Lancelot Andrews spoken on the Christians day.
Magi – the three wise men from the East who undertook the journey to Bethlehem to witness the baby, Christ.
These opening lines are taken from an old Nativity sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, who was a prominent scholar and clergyman in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, delivered in 1622. These lines, along with the title, provides a hint about the content of the poem, that is, the Magi trek to Bethlehem, where Jesus is about to be born. The implication is that they’re coming from a faraway place, probably from around Persia, pretty far east of present-day Israel, and that the weather is particularly turbulent because they’re making this important journey in the extreme winter. An anachronism has been pointed out in the poem The New Testament, which is written way after the Magi die, is referred a few times, as is Christ’s death. It is perceived that there’s also something beyond the Magus in the poem that is also telling the story, this notion expands the narrative possibilities of the poem further. 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.
GLOSSARY AND NOTES
galled – afflicted by sores
refractory – disobedient
There were times we regretted – since the journey/pilgrimage turned out to be arduous and hazardous, they felt regret on their decision.
Silken girls – girls wearing silk cloths or soft-skinned girls.
These lines reflect the voice of the Magus, telling us more specifically about the hardships of their grumpy journey. The camels are “galled,” which can mean annoyed or provoked, or it can mean that they’re chafing under their saddles. They’re so grumpily uncomfortable that they’re “refractory” which means they just do the camel-equivalent of raising a white flag. They sit down in the snow (remember, it’s Christmas Eve) and refuse to go any farther. The narrator goes on to tell us about where they’ve come from-“summer palaces,” on (presumably lush and green) hillsides, with servant girls “bringing sherbet.” The gist here is that the Magi lead pretty cushy lives when they’re not busy trekking through the countryside in the middle of winter looking for a baby who might be everyone’s saviour. Not that the Magi knew that they were going to be called upon to find the birthplace of Christ and could “train” accordingly. But all the same, they’re suffering in the cold, and looking back on it, maybe all that luxury was a little excessive. They might have been a little more prepared for this kind of thing.
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:
grumbling – express discomfort
wanting – lacking
in snatches – for a short while
hostile – unfriendly
The hardships of the Magi are intensified in these lines. The pilgrims who were supposed to be handling the camels are getting grumpy, too, to the point where in some cases they’re just abandoning the Magi altogether. The camel men who remain are complaining that they’d really like a drink and a girl. Moreover, the night is so cold and damp that they can’t even keep a fire going, and they’re really only trying to keep a fire going because there’s no room at the inn. And even if there were room at the inn, it would probably be awful, because the cities nearby are downright ‘hostile’ (think mean on steroids), and the villages are just filthy and everyone charges too much.
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
As mentioned in the very opening the narrator says that things were not easy for them at all. At the end of the day, the Magi and their crew decided just to travel the whole night and to sleep when absolutely necessary. In the meantime, throughout all of this hardship, there’s the Magi equivalent of “the little voice inside my head” whisper contradictory things while the character is trying to make a decision. A voice that’s trying to tell them “that this was all folly,” meaning a giant mistake, or a stupid idea. The word “this,” though, seems a little vague at first look, it refers to the journey itself, that travelling all this way was a mistake. The voice at the end of this stanza is like the little devil, it contradicts the voice of an angel that had, days prior, told them to go and follow a star in the sky and bring gifts to a baby saviour who would be born in a barn in Bethlehem.
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,
temperate – of mild temperature the three trees on the low sky – it has a Biblical reference. The three trees refer to the three crosses on the Calvary hills where Jesus Christ was crucified along with the two thieves. (New Testament of the Bible) ‘an old white horse’ – it has a biblical reference. It suggests the white horse mentioned in the Book of Revelations. (Revelation XIX. It says that when the world ends, a white horse with a crowned rider will come to conquer the world. This refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ.
After the Magi travelled miserably all night, they reached “a temperate valley.” The word temperate in this case means mild, climate-wise. It’s a welcome contrast to the wintry weather that the Magi have just plodded through last night and before. The whole “smelling of vegetation” further enhances the decidedly non-winter atmosphere. It’s like the seasons have suddenly changed. This could be symbolic for something—the coming of the baby Jesus, that could certainly be depicted as a sudden movement from winter to spring. The passage continues to elaborate upon the mild surroundings of the area (presumably Bethlehem’s general vicinity) before them. It’s got a running stream with the watermill nearby. Three trees can be symbolic of trinity of Christian belief.
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.
‘Six hands …. Pieces of silver’ – the reference is again biblical. It suggests how the soldiers who crucified Jesus Christ gambled for his clothes. It also suggests the betrayal of Jesus Christ by one of his twelve disciples named Judas Iscariot for thirty pieces of silver.
Dicing – playing with dice.
Wine-skins – bags made of animal skin for holding wine.
The last observation of the valley that we get before the Magi head down into the town itself is this “old white horse.”The adjectives “old” and “white” sound a little like they might symbolise the conventional Christian God. The “horse” can be the most famous horses in the Bible, probably the four horses of the Apocalypse, that come down to cleanse the Earth of sinners in Revelation. The Magi come to a tavern where they see a few men gambling over some dice. There’s mention of “empty wine-skins’’ which is a bag used to hold wine made of the skin of a goat or cow. The six pieces of silver might be an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus.
“But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”
The Magi might have asked whether they knew of the location of the stable where Jesus was to be born. They had not got any clue. It takes them all day to get to the stable. Finally, they’ve found the place, they’ve arrived at evening. And then the Magus-narrator says something incredibly peculiar: “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,
The beginning of this stanza suddenly wakes us up to the fact that this story is being told way after the actual journey took place as if the narrator is sitting by a fire in his old age, recalling the events. Now, in the present, he notes that he “would do it again.” So even though the hardship and the grumpy camels and the uncertainty, he views the journey as worthwhile in retrospect.
Magus has an important question that’s still bugging him: “were we led all the way for / Birth or Death?”. He begins to answer his own question by saying that there was indeed a birth, referring to the birth of Jesus. But what about the Death thing?. It’s an ominous question with a couple of implications. One can be “led to one’s death,” and it is now plausible (though, given the life spans of people at that time, not entirely probable) that the Magus is speaking from a time after Jesus’ death.
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
The whole passage devoted to the explanation of what the Magus means when he asks whether they had come so far to witness a birth or a death. The narrator reiterates that they had, in fact, seen a literal birth. He seems to be indicating, then, that he’s speaking metaphorically about the whole death thing. He goes on to say that he has “seen birth and death” also he “had thought they were different. The Magus says that the Birth (notice the capitalization, a la, Jesus, Lord and Savior, etc.) was actually “hard and bitter agony” for all of the Magi. In fact, it was so agonizing that the Magus compares it to 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.”
Set down – written down
Evidence – proof
No longer at ease – spiritually restless
Dispensation – religious faith.
‘old dispensation … their gods’ – the old faith that prevailed till the advent of Jesus Christ. The people who did not know Jesus Christ still believed in their faiths and worshipped their pagan gods.
Clutching – holding tightly.
In these lines, the Magus goes back to telling the story, saying that after the birth of Jesus, the Magi packed up all their stuff and headed back to their respective palaces. Their return, however, was far from celebratory- instead of bringing back awesome news, it seems as though they came back intensely uncomfortable. The middle part of this passage elaborates upon that a little bit, as the Magus details more about “the old dispensation”- which basically means the old ways, and specifically, in this case, the old religion – and his subjects, who now seem to him like “an alien people” clutching false idols. So the Magi come back to their same kingdoms, but in their eyes, the whole place has changed. They’ve seen the coming of a new kind of power, and it’s not their power. Suddenly, their entire culture seems poised on the brink of utter irrelevance. Magus will be happy for a literal death now.
SHORT ANSWER QUESTIONS.
1. What do the dirty village and high prices stand for?
The dirty village and the high prices are symbolic; the dirty village stands for the entire sinful world and the high price stands for corruption and immorality.
2. Why was the journey called arduous and hazardous?
The journey was called arduous and hazardous because it was extreme cold, ways were very deep, camels became disobedient, and the camel-men deserted them on the way. The cities and towns were hostile and unfriendly and they charged high prices for ordinary things.
3. How did the camel-men show their displeasure?
By cursing and grumbling the camel men expressed their displeasure and they even deserted the travellers almost in the middle of their journey.
4. Where did the Magi reach after the dirty village?
The Magi reached a temperate valley which was full of vegetation. There was a running stream and a water-mill to beat the darkness. They saw three trees standing on the low sky and also an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
5. What did the Magi see in the tavern?
The Magi saw three men dicing for pieces of silver at an open door. They saw certain desperate men kicking the empty wine-skins.
6. How did the quest of the Magi end?
The quest of the Magi ended, not in joy, but in faith, accompanied by weariness and disillusion.
7. A cold coming we had of it”. Explain the source of the line?
These words are quoted by Eliot from the sermon of the Elizabethan theologian Bishop Lancelot Andrews who spoke them on Christmas day.
8. Who are the Magi? What is the purpose of their journey?
The Magi are the three wise men from the East who travelled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the baby Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh, following the star which indicated his birth.
ANNOTATE THE FOLLOWING
1. “And the Villages……
..A hard time we had of it”
These lines are taken from the poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ written by T.S. Eliot. He portrays the pain involved in accepting the spiritual change.
The Magi undertook the long journey to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus and to pay the due respects. Though they were guided by the star, they have to undertake a long journey which was very tiring and hazardous. The weather was very sharp and the ways were very deep. Their camels became refractory and the camel-men deserted them on the way. The cities and towns were hostile to them. The villages were very dirty and they charged high prices.
The journey of the Magi symbolizes the spiritual journey. The hardships they experienced are the trials and tribulations of the spiritual journey. The dirty village represents the sinful world and charging high price signified corruption and immorality.
2. “With running stream …….pieces of silver”
The lines quoted from the poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ by T. S. Eliot, gives us an account of the rigorous journey that the Magi undertook to visit the newborn baby, Jesus.
The Magi undertook the journey to witness the birth of Jesus Christ – their Saviour, in Bethlehem and to pay him their due respects. Their journey was very hazardous. It was actually a spiritual journey.
After passing the dirty villages, they came to a temperate valley which was full of vegetation. There was a running stream and a water-mill for beating the darkness. They saw three trees on the low sky. They had also seen an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then they came into a tavern. They saw six hands dicing for the pieces of silver at an open door.
The images shown in these lines are highly symbolic. The temperate valley with vegetation symbolizes the kingdom of love and peace. The three trees suggest the crucifixion of Jesus Christ along with the two thieves. The white horse symbolizes the second coming of Jesus Christ. The six hands dicing for the pieces of silver represent the two soldiers who gambled for the dress of Jesus Christ after the crucifixion and the betrayal of Jesus Christ by his own disciple Judas Iscariot.
3. “I had seen birth …….like Death, our death”
These lines are taken from the concluding stanza of the poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ written
by T. S. Eliot.
The visual of the infant Jesus Christ, the son of God and the Saviour, made them aware of their sins. This realization marked a death in them-the death of their old belief and faith. This spiritual death of old faith gave way to the birth of new faith, the new religion, Christianity. The Magi were regenerated or spiritually re-born after they had seen the infant Jesus Christ. Even though the death was painful; their re-birth gave them immense pleasure. This was because their re-birth was a complete one.
But, when they came back to their country, they thought that they were in a foreign land. Their transformation was so complete that they could not agree with the old faith of their fellowmen. Their countrymen were following the conventional order of things and code of morality. As the Magi had accepted the new religion of love, they could not accept the old dispensation of people.
T. S. Eliot was one of the most famous poets of the Twentieth Century. He was a poet, a dramatist, an essayist and a critic. The poem ‘The Waste Land’ brought him fame and popularity.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. The story of the ‘Journey of the Magi’ is taken from the Gospel according to the St. Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible. When the three Wise Men of the East (The Magi) noticed a new star in the sky, they surmised that it had announced the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of Mankind. They set out immediately to see the infant Jesus in order to pay him their due respects. They reached Bethlehem safely saw the baby Christ and paid him their respects.
Interpreting in a new way T. S. Eliot has transformed this bare Biblical episode into a poem of high significance. He has made it a journey of spiritual quest. Hence, the journey which signifies the trials and tribulations of the spiritual journey becomes arduous and hazardous. It has resulted in the death of their old faith and the birth of a new faith.
The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue. The speaker is one of the Magi and the poet never expresses his own feelings or thoughts. The Magus speaks with colloquial ease as in the line “it was (as you may say) satisfactory”. The narration is made more plain and effective by using simple modern words. Like other dramatic monologues, this poem begins at the critical stage of their journey.
The Magus said that their journey to Bethlehem was both tiring and hazardous. The weather was sharp and the ways were deep. It was the time of dead winter. Their camels were not accustomed to snow and cold. So, they became sore-footed and refractory. The camel men were also dissatisfied with the extreme cold and the difficulties of the journey. They grumbled and cursed the Magi. Later, they deserted the Magi on their way saying that they were not provided with liquor and women.
The Magi didn’t get proper shelter during their journey. The cities were hostile and the towns were unfriendly to them. The villages were dirty and charged high prices. Then they came to a temperate valley which was abundant with vegetation. There were a running stream and a water-mill for beating the darkness. They saw three trees standing on the low hill. They saw an old white horse galloping in the meadows. Then they came to a tavern. They saw three men dicing for the pieces of silver at an open door. They reached their destination in the evening. They saw the infant Jesus and paid him their due respect. But, the Magus remarked that it was not spiritually ideal but satisfactory.
Eliot employs so many symbols in the poem to suggest meanings in a deeper level. The dead winter suggests the general immorality. The Magi represent the people who desire spiritual fertility and peace. The camel men and the Magi are in good contract. The camel men stand for the worldly pleasures and the Magi for spiritual glory. The pictures of the cities, towns and villages show that the world is unholy and full of vices. They stand for the trials and tribulations of the spiritual journey. They are in good contrast with the temperate valley. It suggests the spiritual glory or spiritual fertility.
While describing the temperate valley, Eliot uses certain symbols showing the painful death of Jesus Christ. The suggestion of the things happened in the later years are rather misleading. But, the Magi are highly prophetic. We can assume that they might have got such premonitions during their journey. The three trees symbolize the three crosses on the Calvary where Jesus Christ was crucified along with two thieves. The white horse symbolizes the second coming of Jesus Christ. The six hands dicing for the pieces of silver suggest the gambling of soldiers for Christ’s clothes and the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot.
When the Magi saw the baby Christ, they became aware of their own sins and the futility of their faith. It was a great revelation for them. This self-revelation marked the death of their old faith and the birth of a new faith, the new religion – Christianity. But, when they came back to their own country, it appeared that it was a foreign land. This was because they were spiritually enlightened and were the believers of new faith or religion. The conventional beliefs of the countrymen made the Magi think for another journey to regenerate completely or to have an ideal re-birth.