A critical reading of a classic Christmas poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Journey of the Magi’ by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was the first of a series of poems written by the poet for his employer, the publisher Faber and Faber, composed for special booklets or greetings cards which were issued in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eliot wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’ in 1927, on a single day, one Sunday after church. You can read the poem here. Below we offer some notes towards an analysis of this difficult and elusive poem, with particular focus on its meaning and imagery.
‘Journey of the Magi’ is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender) visiting the infant Christ. The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, chiefly the Zoroastrianism of the Magi themselves. Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927, the same year he wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’, so this is an apt poem for him to have written shortly after his acceptance into the Church of England.
According to Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, he wrote the poem very quickly: ‘I had been thinking about it in church,’ he told her years later, ‘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.’ The title of the poem is significant, not least Eliot’s use of the word ‘Magi’: think about its very foreignness and its ambiguity (the term originally denoted Persian Zoroastrian priests, but had come to carry the more general meaning of ‘astrologers’ – or, if you like, magicians). This foreign and alien quality is obviously related to what the poem is about: namely, one group of people becoming alienated by the coming of another group, the people who will, in time, follow the new religion of Christianity which will lead to the death of the religions the Magi, or astrologers, follow. The Magi are like the ‘hollow men’ of Eliot’s poem of that title from two years before: together, they find they are alienated from the rest of the world, in some sort of between-existence or limbo (because the world is in a transition between their old Zoroastrian faith and the new, emerging faith of Christianity which will supersede it).
Here is a brief summary of ‘Journey of the Magi’. The opening quotation comes from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermons, preached at Christmas during the 1620s. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional to focus on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the point of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The poem ends with the poem’s speaker reflecting on the journey years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it again, but he would add that we remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his peers have felt uneasy living among his people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one god only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.
There are several things which are odd about Eliot’s poem. First, for a poem titled ‘Journey of the Magi’, there is no mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s nativity plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger. Second, the actual nativity scene itself is elided from the narrative: the Magi travel to the place where Christ is to be found, locate it, and then suddenly the speaker of the poem is looking back on the journey years later as an old man. Jesus himself is absent from the poem. Is this because this part of the story is familiar to us, but the Magi themselves are not – or specifically, how the Magi would have felt about seeing their deeply-held beliefs cast into doubt by this new Messiah? Yet surely one way to convince us of the impact of this new-born deity on the lives of these Persian astrologers would have been to show us how they reacted when faced with the baby Christ. There are several possible reasons why Eliot would have chosen to leave Jesus out of the poem, but they all raise additional questions.
Note also how the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life and crucifixion: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion, between two thieves on the mountain; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper. These details are significant not least because the speaker is a priest or astrologer, someone who is trained to look for significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens. But he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow; we, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance. At the end, the speaker is left feeling jaded and lost by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing, since his arrival in the world signalled the death of his religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi are world-weary and welcome the end.
‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ – and, with him, Christianity. It is tempting to see the poem – written in the year Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion. However, a more nuanced reading invites us to see the poem as an account of the ways in which every religious and ethnic identity is in some sense threatened, at some time or in some place, by other, more dominant groups and identities. A possible allusion to Othello’s ‘Set you down this’ (his dying words in Shakespeare’s play) points up the religious and ethnic differences which underlie the poem’s setting: Othello, like Eliot, had converted to Christianity, since he was a Muslim moor who converted when he joined the Christian world of Venice. (It should be noted, though, that there is an alternative source for these lines in Eliot’s poem: in one of his sermons, Lancelot Andrewes writes, ‘Secondly, set down this’. As with many allusions in Eliot’s poetry, there are several possible sources which Eliot may be calling into play.)
The poem, then, is not just about religious identity but about broader issues of ethnic and cultural identity, too. Note how the poem doesn’t mention Christ’s name anywhere, or that the infant they are travelling to see is Jesus: it doesn’t need to be said. Then recall the foreignness of ‘Magi’ in that title. The Magi are already ‘other’, the alien ones or outsiders: when the speaker tells us at the end that they returned to ‘our places, these Kingdoms’, it is tempting to see the poem as in some sense a development of ‘The Hollow Men’, which was also about a group of men feeling lost and empty in a ‘kingdom’ where they appear to long for death.
It is undoubtedly this multifaceted quality to the poem which helped it to become one of the nation’s favourite poems in 1996 (it was no. 44 on the list – one higher than the childhood favourite by Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’). ‘Journey of the Magi’ is a more accessible poem than some of T. S. Eliot’s other work, yet it remains a challenging piece of poetry in many ways. It is only through analysing some of its images and more curious details that we can begin to appreciate it at a deeper level.
Continue to explore Eliot’s poetry with our analysis of his great religious poem, Ash-Wednesday, our introduction to his suite of religious poems Four Quartets, and our discussion of his early modernist masterpiece, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Journey of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 6th c., Wikimedia Commons.