A little analysis of
T. S. Eliot's
T. S. Eliot's
The journey of the Magi 1927
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly
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.
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.”
What I hope to find are the different angles from which you can see, or interpret the Journey of the Magi.
It is a Modernist poem and one of the main ideas of the Modernist period is that there are now as many points of views as there are people to have a point of view.
There is no longer just one written general truth. And there was a strong sense and need to do something new in order to convey authentic human feelings.
Novels are no longer plot-based, and we see a stronger focus upon the self.
If we were to describe the Modernist Period with one word, it would be Self.
We also see a deeper dive into the psyche of narrators, often emphasised through dramatic monologues.
The Journey of the Magi is written as a dramatic monologue. It’s also written in free verse, no rhyme or rhythm, developed to resemble everyday speech, all though (a little fun fact), Eliot himself meant that free verse was not the term for a poet who wanted to do a good job. He felt the need for some sort of restriction and rules still.
To get back to the dramatic monologue, it was developed in the Romantic period and gave a close psychological or philosophical observation described in a specific setting, e.g. William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (in which the characters develop through dramatic monologue).
I have narrowed it down to two and a half, three different ways of interpretation.
1. The actual journey of the Magi.
In this poem the narrator is one of the wise men, the kings bringing gifts, from the Gospel about Jesus from Nazareth.
The superficial, and apparent interpretation is the story about a long and hard journey with a purpose of seeing the prophesised new born king.
As they walk along they find themselves longing for the life they left behind.
They are lamenting the fact that this life can never be lived again. Seeing the Christ child is a life altering experience. The Magi knew at that moment that their old way of life is no more. Having witnessed the birth of Christ they are compelled to live a life with only one God. And converting to Christianity is not only a joyful experience, but it also involves sacrifice.
In the end, the only thing left is waiting for death, and hopefully ascending to heaven sin-free.
If we journey deeper into the material, it becomes apparent that the narrator has a modern voice.
It could very well be the magus talking, but an older version of him looking back. Or it could be a modern voice trying to imagine what the Magi would have felt like on their journey following a star and fulfilling prophesies.
On this note the reader becomes a factor to understanding the poem.
The reader knows more than the narrator, for instance that Jesus died on the cross, taking away our sins.
The Magi aren’t in possession of this knowledge. They continue walking night and day, and the only thing our narrator can do is to let his mind wander.
The narrator Magus sees the three trees on the hill (a point which is emphasised through near alliteration. It isn’t alliteration, but close, another point which confirms Modernism.), they are symbolising the three crosses seen on the crucifixion of Jesus.
He sees the old white horse running past him, symbolising the old ways running away, the death of Paganism running over the hill. However it has been suggested that the old horse is that of Jesus from the coming Apocalypse, but in this poem the horse is not a strong war stallion, what’s more, it has no rider, so it is my belief that it’s a reference to the old ways, and this notion is strengthened by the fact that the horse is old as are the ways.
He mentions pieces of silver, symbolising Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for Thirty Pieces of Silver. This could also mean that the Magi feel betrayed. Because all of this is leading up to the prophesised resurrection, and this is a point the Magi has difficulties comprehending. Upon return to their kingdoms, they did (according to the Bible) try to live by the new rules. But they looked at their people and saw them still leaning on more than one God. They had to come to terms with the fact that “The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet” is not really a Godly way of life. Knowing what they know, having seen baby Jesus, they couldn’t possibly go back to this way of life. But also, they had a hard time of it, leading the new life. And although seeing the prophesised king gives a certain satisfaction, I get a strong feeling of disappointment. I can also sense the feeling of being betrayed.
I also believe the three stages of penance are presented.
The first stanza represents the contrition of sins.
Then, out of order, we get the satisfaction from being forgiven, by the Magi finding Jesus and Virgin Mary.
In the last stanza we are presented with the confession, leaving them without the satisfaction they so desperately search.
The last line of the poem is: “I should be glad of another death.”
This could be the Magus longing for his own death, even wanting to take his own life in order to be free of the strict rules now opposed on him.
It could also mean he’s longing for a conformation that Christ did in fact give his life on the cross. He’s not sure. The reader is sure, but the narrator of the poem might not be.
Or it could simply mean he wishes a change would come, not just in his life but in everybody’s lives.
2. A journey of any individual on a spiritual quest.
This would be a general interpretation of the poem where any person searching for understanding or meaning could relate.
At some point of a quest like this the feeling of hopelessness would probably separate the brave ones from the ones running away.
It’s easy enough to give in to despair and conclude that a journey like this is folly.
It’s harder to find purpose when a great deal of self-involvement and sacrifice is expected in order to reach fulfilment and satisfaction in life and in the afterlife.
In Christianity we know that faith is the biggest portion of being a Christian. A good Christian is expected to believe in a manner which proof shouldn’t be needed.
But in the Journey of the Magi, the magus craves just that, proof.
So, leaving behind the safe haven, taking on a quest of this magnitude, one would (being a magus or not) expect the reward to be enormous. And if one completely embrace faith, and trust that the Lord will endure his agony to come, then the last line is an expectance of ones own journey to paradise.
But if believing is hard, and proof eludes the one on the spiritual quest then the death would serve as proof and maybe even satisfaction.
3. Eliot’s conversion from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927.
As mentioned earlier there is a presence of a modern narrator in this poem. T. S. Eliot converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism on June 29th 1927. He had then felt, for some time, that Unitarianism didn’t provide him with the comfort he needed. With one foot in USA and one foot in Britain, he searched for something constant in his life.
The Journey of the Magi is written shortly after his conversion, and the link between his personal life and the theme of the poem is very strong.
“this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
The conversion was not easy, but it was a burden lifted off his shoulders finally finding his religion, and further, meaning.
Not taking the writer and his experiences into consideration would be wrong, as there would not be a poem without the writer. And his reasons for writing this poem are quite clear, many find it a reaction and a comment upon his own experiences.
But then again, I’m not quite agreeing with myself here, because a poem standing alone without focus upon the writer might be considered timeless in spite of the time in which it was written, and in some way I think this poem does. But on the other side, I found Eliot’s story rather fascinating, and deemed it a good move to focus on as I’ve done.
And all though The Journey of the Magi contains dramatic irony (a technique used to show that the reader knows more than the narrator), the actual journey of the wise men, it presents the three stages of penance, the birth and prophesised crucifixion of the redeemer, and is based upon the gospel of Matthew, the modern voice present is Eliot’s.
Eliot became a warden in his church, and all though he took pride in not being a religious poet and writer, his personal feelings shine through, as they should and must if a writer is to give his works soul.
“I should be glad of another death.”
These are the sentiments of a person coming to terms with his own mortality.