Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

This poem (1927), the first of Eliot’s contributions to the Ariel series, is, along with “A Song for Simeon,” certainly far easier to place within the immediate context of the Christmas season that inspires it than his later contributions might seem to be. Eliot’s title would quickly make anyone with even the most general and secular awareness of the popular associations connected with Christmas mindful of the three wise men, or magi. Celebrated in song and image, they constitute an integral part of the lore of the Christmas story to this day. The three magi, history would have it, were pagan priests from the East, most likely adepts in astrology from the environs of Persia, who, on the basis of their observations of the stars, traveled westward, guided by the so-called Star of Bethlehem, to the “place where Jesus lay.” Tradition would further have it that they had become convinced by the astrological charts that they had cast that a great king was about to be born, one whose birth, life, and death would usher in a new age.


The Journey of the Magi, Illustrated Vita Christi, c.1190-1200

In his poem, Eliot focuses on the trials of the magi’s journey to the stable in Bethlehem and on the hope that they placed in the miraculous birth that they had traveled so far to witness, as well as on the effect that witnessing such an event had subsequently had on them. Rather than telling their story, however, Eliot, in keeping with his use of the dramatic mask that goes back as far at least as to characterizations such as J. Alfred Prufrock, imagines himself to be one of the magi many years later, telling his story apparently to a scribe so that there will be preserved a written record of it. It is a clever literary device, one that such prominent 19th-century poets as Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning had already used to great advantage. By pretending to be great literary or historical figures such as the Greek hero Ulysses or the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto in dramatic monologues that sought to reveal the psychology of character as much as the ruminations of theme, they were able to explore a wider range of human experience than any lyric poet can typically undergo in a lifetime and yet still use that most powerful rhetorical device, the authority of the first-person singular voice, the “I” of firsthand experience and eyewitness accounts. Utilizing the opportunities for modulating voice and poetic mask through the medium of these dramatic monologues to which those two poets had thereby reintroduced literary audiences, Eliot’s contemporary poet and good friend, the fellow American expatriate Ezra Pound, had earlier done something similar to what Eliot does with the magi with another biblical character in “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere” (1909). In that poem, the imagined speaker, Simon the Zealot, is permitted to “come to life,” as it were, to give a first-person account of Christ’s Crucifixion.

In every case, the aim of the poet using this form is to make the tired but true sound refreshingly new by giving it the characteristics of living speech caught as if in the act of being spoken. In Pound’s poem, for example, despite the artificial note struck by the pronounced rhythm and rhyme scheme required of the traditional ballad form, Simon speaks in something of a Cockney accent, making him sound like a contemporary working-class bloke rather than a high-toned Christian preacher.

The dramatic monologue was hardly a new device in Eliot’s poetic repertoire, of course. He had already expanded that form’s potential in such works as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” and “The Hollow Men,” to name several outstanding examples, not to mention The Waste Land, in which he set new and perhaps permanent standards for the manipulation of persona and voice as a mode of poetic discourse. But somewhat like Tennyson, whose dramatic monologues can strike readers as elaborate contrivances for all their poetic power, Eliot tended to make the form more of a poetic than a purely dramatic exercise. Prufrock might sound as if he is speaking his thoughts and feelings, for example, but they are freely combined with purely literary elements, and the entire mix is then mangled into the fragmentary by his emotional ups and downs so that any resemblance to recorded speech is purposefully blurred if not obliterated.


In the Ariel poems in general and in “Journey of the Magi” in particular, Eliot exceeds the models of those two other masters of the form and accomplishes a poetry closer in its perfection as a dramatic monologue to the considerable achievements of Robert Browning. He does so in the powerful sense of audience that he creates. The reader is made witness—only an auditory one, it is true, but a real one nevertheless—to one of the magi as he, ruminating here, reflecting there, now regretting, now rejoicing, bears witness to the events of that momentous journey, all for the sake of the invisible and silent scribe.

Note, for example, that although no specific passage of time since the journey has taken place is mentioned, it is not difficult to catch in the speaker’s tone the sense that quite some time has passed since that eventful winter’s night when they came upon the scene in Bethlehem. This is not a man still caught up in the excitement, confusions, and exhaustion of the moment, nor is he someone who has just recently returned home from an arduous trip who is sharing both his thoughts on what it was like and his relief that it is now over. Rather there is a weariness concealed in his account, a measure of helpless disappointment akin somewhat, perhaps, to the overall fatigue that invades the musings of the old man/speaker of “Gerontion.”

And yet there is a tone of self-importance as well, a sort of “I was there, let me tell you” puffery, as if Eliot wishes to leave the impression, which is always aesthetically more effective than any direct treatment of setting or subject matter, that this is an I-knew-him-when sort of summation that the speaker is making, coming long after the baby he sought on that long ago journey had matured into not the king that they had imagined that they would 276 “Journey of the Magi” find but the sacrificial victim whose birth, life, and death had nevertheless redeemed and transformed human history in ways that no one, not even these fabled wise men, could ever have anticipated. The dramatic monologue is the perfect instrument for creating ironic tensions between what the fictional speaker thinks he is saying and what the poet wants his own readers to hear. Surely, Eliot’s magus is, these many years later, less impressed with the event and more full of himself than someone who had come that close to miracle has any right to be, and to a great measure, that is the effect that Eliot is aiming to achieve.

Even now, child of the old dispensation that he self-confessedly is, Eliot’s speaker can only muse on the event with a vague appreciation for but even vaguer understanding of the changes that that birth have subsequently wrought upon him and his world. The magus begins his recollection by recalling the coldness of the journey, and to give that recollection its antique quality as if it comes not just from an earlier time but from another age, Eliot quotes virtually verbatim (and even uses quotation marks as if to underscore this point) the 300-year-old words of the 17th-century English cleric Sir Lancelot Andrewes, a contemporary and fellow word stylist of the metaphysical poet JOHN DONNE. In the passage from the Andrewes sermon that Eliot employs to set the scene and tone for his own speaker’s account, Andrewes comments on the Nativity and on how awful it was for Joseph and Mary to undertake the journey to Bethlehem. “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,” he commences. The only real alteration that Eliot makes in Andrewes’s original prose, indeed, is to change a third-person plural verb, they, to the first person plural, we, in keeping with the fiction that his own poem is a first-person telling of the episode.

For those who might recognize Eliot’s original source, it is as if the presence of the holy family has infiltrated the text to begin with, lurking in the corners of the reader’s own experience of the poem as it continues. This is, after all, a poem focusing on the paradoxical contrasts that the birth of Christ and his life’s mission will force on the religious imagination that will emerge from Christianity. The light of the world comes at the darkest time of the year. The king of the world is born amid conditions associated with the most abject poverty. The fire of God’s love comes at a time of bitter cold. Eliot allows the speaker’s remembrances to reflect these sharp contrasts, as he thinks of the summery life that he had left behind to make the journey, with its “summer palaces on slopes” and “silken girls bringing sherbet,” whereas all about them now, instead, is a barren winter landscape, inhabited by uncouth ruffians, an inhospitable and alien environment that seems to mock them with the nagging feeling that the perilous journey that they have undertaken is little more than “all folly.”

Having painted such a bleak scene of doubt and desperation, the speaker thus manages to surprise the reader all the more with the sudden burst of vitality with which the second stanza opens. As if it is resplendent of the hope for new life that is itself embodied in Christ, the speaker reports that they reached “at dawn . . . a temperate valley, / . . . smelling of vegetation.” This scene provides what Eliot would call an objective correlative for the spark of a rebirth, allowing Eliot to share with his contemporary readers a glimpse of the potential contained in this particular birth that his speaker could not even begin to imagine, the Earth’s resurrection into grace that Christ’s own birth foreshadows for the human spirit. However, as if to emphasize that the journey from this miraculous moment to the final redemption of humankind is a far longer and more arduous journey than any that the magi may ever have undertaken, as well as one more fraught with the defects of human folly than theirs, the dark of winter encroaches again in a flood of foreshadowing images and blots out that refreshing scene with which the second stanza had opened in its momentary flash of new life and, with it, hope.

If the sought-for birth truly were daybreak for a new epoch of humanity, then upon that still fragile hope, at this moment nothing more than a newborn infant, the darkness of this world drops again, as W. B. Yeats would put it, in the image of “three trees on the low sky.” They cast the long shadow of Christ’s death on a cross, a thief crucified to each side, backward over the pastoral valley of his birth, thus hardly permitting the speaker, or the reader, so much as a moment’s respite from the fact that heaven has not yet arrived on Earth, only its king. While it is clear that the speaker could not recognize the special significance of this and other details that follow the description of the pleasant valley setting, these images of the coming catastrophe of Christ’s Crucifixion muddy the scene and darken even the relatively ignorant speaker’s mood and tone. Eliot is also still employing the dramatic irony that he had used earlier; the poem is addressed to a contemporary Christian audience, after all, one that would definitely get the message that the first Christmas will end in the Passion of the Christ.

In the poem, at least, the darkness does not lift. Employing techniques similar to contemporary films, in which a juxtaposed image comments on a scene but is not otherwise related to it in content, Eliot now allows a horse to careen across the landscape, suggesting a natural universe out of control and hovering on the edge of chaos, and then there is a tavern and men playing dice for silver, bringing to mind the boisterous, drunken Roman soldiers who would later gamble for Christ’s garments at the foot of the cross, and Judas, too, who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. The speaker continues his memoir, totally unaware of the tragedy that he is seeing foretold, and concludes, pedantically, that they finally arrived at their destination, “[f]inding the place . . . (you may say) satisfactory.”


The understatement at first astounds and then renders itself perfectly understandable. For all of their acquaintance with mystery, its human dimensions, Eliot offers the suggestion that the magi could not possibly have understood the profundities of the unfolding mystery that they were there to witness in its initial manifestation. But then Eliot has his speaker surprise the reader by expressing at least the inkling of some awareness that, even when counted among miraculous things, this was no ordinary birth and that something far more than merely extraordinary had entered the world and, through it, human history. The speaker seems to know, or at the very least intuit, that his age and his kind, and all the wisdom of his world, is coming to an end and that this birth is the signal of their death. “[W]ere we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” he wonders, entertaining the paradox of the contradictions that such a blessing portends. Such a birth brings with it renewal, but renewal requires the removal of all those things that are now to be replaced. His is “the old dispensation,” a world that for the speaker still exists but that for Eliot and his readers is by now something even less than a relic—all that which was born too soon and died too early.

The speaker confesses that his long-ago experience has forever unsettled his life; he is “no longer at ease here” in his familiar surroundings, but to what purpose he neither puzzles out nor supposes. Like Eliot’s hollow men, he appears to have seen the light but is unable either to recognize its source or to follow it, so he shall die in the wilderness that, for Eliot, is a world without a coherent belief in a singular creation that serves a singular purpose. For all his wisdom, the speaker’s tragedy is to have come that close to mystery and majesty without having grasped its significance for him and him alone, a state of affairs whose continuing implications could not have been lost on a contemporary reader, Eliot among them.

Christ said to Nicodemus that to be saved he must be reborn, and Eliot closes the poem by seeming to play on this cryptic injunction. “I should be glad of another death,” the speaker says in an ironic twist on the notion of a spiritual rebirth, as if for him sharing the common lot of the grave would have been a better fate than to have been fated to glimpse those many years before in that desert birth the unsettling truth that his age was coming to an end along with all else that he and his hold dear—as if, for him, to gain some inkling that there is something better and greater can be worse than to know nothing at all. Eliot’s speaker seems to share the plea of the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” (1854), who begs the harbingers of a new age that he, the speaker, knows he will not live to see to “leave our desert to its peace.”

The allusion to Othello’s closing speech in Shakespeare’s great tragedy that comes when Eliot’s speaker commands the scribe to “set down / This” has been often noted, but what Eliot has to say of that moment in the play Othello may cast some further light on what the reader ought to make of the speaker of the Eliot poem. When, just before stabbing himself to death, Othello defends himself by recalling the services that he has done Venice and makes a similar command, “Set you down this,” to the Venetians who stand about him, thunderstruck at the terrible deeds of death and violence that they have just witnessed, Eliot, in his essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” which was also published in 1927, writes that Othello “in making this speech is cheering himself up . . . [by] dramatizing himself rather than his environment.” In the same manner, Eliot’s magus sees this unfolding drama, whose initial moment he was privileged to witness, only in terms of its effects on him—the sort of self-centeredness that the Christian ethic encourages humanity to abhor. As Eliot would summarize this defect later in his poem “The Dry Salvages,” one might say of the speaker of “Journey of the Magi” that he “had the experience but missed the meaning.”

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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