The Journey of the Magi
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Journey of the Magi is a poem by T. S. Eliot on the subject of the magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. The poem was written after Eliot's conversion to Christianity and confirmation in the Church of England in 1927 and published in Ariel Poems in 1930.
Description and style
The poem is an account of the journey from the point of view of one of the magi. It picks up Eliot's consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed. In this regard, with a speaker who laments outliving his world, the poem recalls Arnold's Dover Beach, as well as a number of Eliot's own works. Instead of a celebration of the wonders of the journey, the poem is largely a complaint about a journey that was painful and tedious. The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that "this was all folly". The magus seems generally unimpressed by the infant, and yet he realizes that the Incarnation has changed everything. He asks,
- ". . . were we led all that way for
- Birth or Death?"
The birth of the Christ was the death of the world of magic, astrology, and paganism.(cf Colossians 2:20) The speaker, recalling his journey in old age, says that after that birth his world had died, and he had little left to do but wait for his own end.
There are at least two formal elements of the poem that are interesting. The first is that the poem maintains Eliot's long habit of using the dramatic monologue – a form he inherited and adapted from Robert Browning. The speaker of the poem is in agitation and speaks to the reader directly. His revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress. As with other works, Eliot chooses an elderly speaker – someone who is world-weary, reflective, and sad (cf. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gerontion, the Tiresias narrator of The Waste Land, and possibly the narrator of The Hollow Men). His narrator in this poem is a witness to historical change who seeks to rise above his historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings.
Secondly, the poem has a number of symbolist elements, where an entire philosophical position is summed up by the manifestation of a single image. For example, the narrator says that on the journey they saw "three trees against a low sky"; the single image of the three trees implies the historical future (the crucifixion) and the spiritual truth of the future (the skies lowered and heaven opened).
The first five lines are based on Lancelot Andrewes's "Nativity Sermon" of 1622 and represent a recollection by the magus which set off the reflections which follow.