Journey Of The Magi: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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      The Magi refers to the three wise men of the East. They heard about the birth of Christ. They wanted to pay their respect to the newborn Christ. During the Journey of the Magi, they had to face difficulties which are narrated by one of the Magi. The journey stands for spiritual quest and the birth into a new faith. The difficulties are symbolic of the hurdles that lie in the way of the progress of pilgrims. Perhaps, this poem has some reference to Eliot's conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. Though the journey has ended successfully, the Magi are not quite sure of its beneficial results. They have been cut off from the old dispensation but they are not able to get full benefits of what Christ stands for. According to Elizabeth Drew, the meaning of new birth is obscure, full of doubt, accompanied by pain, not joy, and perplexing in extreme. The Magi are torn between two worlds - the one dead and the other yet to be born.

During the Journey of the Magi, they had to face difficulties which are narrated by one of the Magi.
Journey to Magi


      L. 1-20. We had to go through a weary unpleasant and cold journey. It was the worst time of the year for undertaking such a arduous journey. The roads were uneven and full of holes and the weather was chilly. It was the worst part of the winter season. The camels on which we rode were feeling miserable. Their feet were full of sores and they were reluctant to go ahead. They lay down on the ground full of snow. Sometimes we felt sorry for having undertaken this adventure. We could have undertaken a pleasant journey to the palaces of entertainment on the hills or in the valleys where beautiful girls would have served us iced drinks. Another source of trouble was the camel drivers who were grumbling on account of hardships of the journey. They felt like running away because they wanted their women and wine. Another difficulty was the absence of warm fire at night and the scarcity of suitable places of rest and relaxation. Moreover, the cities situated on the way were not cordial. The people were very unfriendly. The villages we had to pass through were dirty and people charged high prices for the foodstuffs and services they supplied. In fact, we had a very bad time. When we heard our destination we decided to travel all night. People slept by turns and for short periods. We heard voices telling us that our journey was a great stupidity on our part.

      L. 21-31. Early morning, we reached a valley with a mild climate. It was wet below the snow-line and there was a lot of vegetation. There was a running stream and a water mill beside, the sound of which disturbed the stillness of the night. There were three trees in the distance and an old white horse galloped in the meadows. Then we came to the tavern, the door of which was covered with vine leaves. We saw six hands at an open door gambling for pieces of silver - a reference to Judas and the soldier claiming the robes of Christ. We saw the feet of drunken men kicking the empty wineskins. But we had no information about our destination and so we continued and arrived in the evening, well in time at the place where Jesus was born and thus ended our journey happily.

      L. 32-43. This happened a long time ago. I remember and I would like to do it again, but now I desire to note down the most essential points of the journey. Did we undertake this journey for Birth or death (our salvation or our transformation). We know for certain that there was a birth. I had seen birth and death before, but I never thought they were different. But this Birth (rebirth in Christianity) was a painful and heartbreaking experience for us because it destroyed our old values and ideals; it was like our own death (the death of the ordinary man), We returned to our places but we were different. We lost our peace of mind. In this condition, our own people sticking to their old ways and faiths seemed strangers to us. They were like foreigners worshipping their own gods. I feel that I should have another death, death which would end this mental tension and may purify me wholly to merit the blessings of Christ.

Critical Analysis

      Hazards of the journey: The account of the Journey of the Magi to the birth of Christ is based on a sermon preached before King James I by Lancelot Andrews on Christmas day in 1622. He said: "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 especially a long journey in the way deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstito brunali, the very dead of winter." The difficulties faced by the Magi were: firstly, the biting chill, secondly, the rough road, thirdly, the fatigue and tedium of the journey, fourthly, sick camels reluctant to move, fifthly, the nostalgic recollections of homely pleasures, the sixthly, the unfriendly cities and hostile salesmen on the way. But the firm determination and the inner urge of the Magi enabled them to continue their journey despite all odds. Sometimes their minds were disturbed by the doubt that their journey might prove to be wild-goose-chase and all their love's labor may be lost. Even so, they continued the journey, night and day.

      The Journey's end: Ultimately they reach a temperate valley which has good vegetation. They hear the music of the running water and the sound of the water mill. They also see the old white horse galloping in a meadow. The three trees refer to the place where Christ was crucified and three crosses were raised. The tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel refers to the communion. The six hands dicing for pieces of silver refers to the betrayal of Christ by Judas and the soldiers dicing for robes. At last they entered the place where Jesus was born. But the poet has not expressed their joy at finding the infant Jesus. All that he says is: "It was (you may say) satisfactory".

      The second death: The old Magi reflects on the result of this arduous journey. He asks: "Were we laid all the way for a birth or a death?". They saw the birth of Christ. But it was a kind of death for them, because it meant a clean breach from their old life and old ideas. It was like the birth of a new life. In the Bible, it is mentioned that Jesus said "You must be born again." "This means that Christians must be confirmed as Christian through baptism. The wise men were not really prepared for the birth into Christianity. They were emotionally disturbed. They felt separated from their own men who still worship the God of the pre-Christian period. They had felt no joy in accepting the new faith. Therefore, they desired another death so that they may completely be converted to Christianity. The second death would make them completely free from the old dispensation and bring them into a new way of life and thought, taught by the Saviour.

      Gospel's story: The journey is based upon the Gospel of St. Matthew. The Magi were guided to the home of Jesus by a new star. In the beginning, they sought the help of Herod - the King of Jews. He pretended to help them in order to identify the child. His intention was to kill him because he wanted no rival king. When the wise men worshipped Jesus, they were told not to report their discovery to King Herod.

      Eliot's handling of the story is symbolic. The old faith is dead. After the quest for a new faith, it has come to the successful end. Even in its success, the wise men feel no joy or peace of mind. The wise men are uneasy and look forward to death which may confirm them in a new faith. Perhaps, death they wish for, will completely cut them off from the old ways of life and they will be reborn as complete and full-blooded Christians.

      Title: The Magi were the three wise men who came from the East to honor the newborn Jesus. Magi refers to the priestly class of magicians in ancient Persia. Later on, the three wise men were identified as three kings: Balthazar king of Chaldea, Gaspar, Ethiopian king of Garshish and Melchoir the king of Nubia. One of the Magi recounts the difficulties of the travelers during their journey to the inhospitable land. The journey represents a quest for the spiritual land-the death of the old and the birth of a new age. The spiritual transformation of the Magi and their new life show the successful result of the spiritual endeavor.

      Style of the poem: The poem shows clever use of symbols. The main symbols are traditional-running water, crosses, vine-leaves, pieces of silver. He has also enriched the story with his personal memory as mentioned in his critical essay entitled The Use of Poetry and Use of Criticism. During his journey to France, he came across six ruffians playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill.

      Another peculiarity of the poem is that while in style and phrasing, it bordered on prose, it is free from earthiness of prose. Matthiessen remarks in this connection, "How prose may be transformed into poetry is illustrated by the comparison between the quotation from Andrews and what Eliot made of it: It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in, the ways deep, the weather sharp, the sun farthest off, in solstito brumali, the 'very dead of winter'."

"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 dread of winter."

Line by Line Explanation

L. 1-5. 'A cold coming....dead of winter': These lines refer to a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrews on Christmas day 1622 before King James first. The actual lines of sermon are as under -

"A cold coming they had of it at this time of year, just the worst time of year to take a journey and especially a long journey in the ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the farthest off in 'solstito brumali', very dead of the winter."

L, 5. The very dead of winter:

L. 6. galled: bitter: sore fooled: wounded feet. refractory: unwilling or reluctant.

L. 7. lying down: idle.

L. 9. summer palaces: the entertainment in palaces in summer.

L. 9. slopes: hills: terraces: the graded plains in the bills.

L. 10. silken girls: the girls dressed in silk or the girls having bodies as soft as silk, sorbet: sweet iced drink.

L. 12. Wanting: asking for.

L. 13. going out: extinguished, lack of shelters: lack of suitable places for rest and relaxation.

L. 14. hostile: inimical, unfriendly.

L. 18. sleeping in snatches: sleeping by turns for short intervals.

L. 20. folly: mad adventures; a stupid enterprise.

L. 21. temperate: mild climate.

L. 22. wet: moist.

L. 23. water-mill: mill running with the help of water-bearing the darkness: disturbing the darkness.

L. 25. white horse: Christ, the conqueror, rode on a while horse.

L. 26. tavern: a pub; a bar. vine-leaves: leaves of the grapes creepers. lintel: the horizontal cross-piece over a door.

L. 27. Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver: (i) This may refer to the betrayal of Christ by Judas for pieces of silver, and the soldiers dicing for his robes at the time of crucifixion or (ii) Eliot mentions his own personal experience of 'six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction, where there Was a water-mill".

L. 31. Finding the place: reached the destination.

L. 35-39 This: were we....Death, our death: We had to undergo the hardships of the journey to the birth-place of Christ for our spiritual birth or the death of our worldliness. The birth of Christ made a great impact on the three wise men - the Magi. The birth of Christ was quite different from ordinary births they had witnessed in the world. The birth of Christ had produced in their minds an inner restlessness as painful as death. This is the state of a devotee when he has given up his worldly actions and ambitions but has not yet entered the state of spirituality. He is aware of the death of his own self, but has not yet been acquainted with his re-birth on the spiritual plane.

L. 41 But no longer at ease: mentally disturbed, restless or unsatisfied. old dispensation: old faith or religion.

L. 42. Alien people: people of our own city and our religion but, who now appear to us like foreigners, clutching: grabbing.

L. 43. I should be glad of another death: The Magi says that he would welcome another death so as to complete his transformation into a real Christian. He yearns for a second death which may completely release him from old ties and traditions and bring him fully into the new way of life opened to men by the birth of Christ. For a complete spiritual state, it is necessary that the Magi should undergo the experience of another death. The first journey has made him a half-Christian. His re-birth in Christianity is halfway through. A second birth in Christianity is possible only after another death.

      Conclusion: The poem has the greatest dignity and power. The process of conversion is portrayed in the images of the Magi's journey. Perhaps it embodies some of the personal feelings of Eliot, when he took his decision of conversion. It has a note of personal conviction.

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