Compared to the poetry prior to the 20th century, the poetry of T.S. Eliot rings vibrant, unconventional and inventive. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi” is typical of his style and illustrates how Eliot’s poetry changed the genre forever. In its compression of image and language, “Journey of the Magi” is a complex poem, reflective of the complex world of the 20th century.
The poem narrates the journey of the magi to see the birth of Christ. Traditionally, the magi in this tale are filled with a sense of wonder and excitement over the new king. They travel from afar and bring the finest gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” the magi are not characterized by the same sense of wonder and enthusiasm; they perform the journey without full understanding or interest. The gifts that are traditionally associated with them are not even mentioned. The first few lines of the poem set a negative tone; they explain that the journey was during the “worst time of the year” and in the “very dead of winter” (2; 5). This tone is surprising to the reader because traditionally the wise men are represented as dedicated and reverent-hardly the type to complain about how long or cold the journey is. Also, because the poem is a retelling-apparent because of the quotation marks around the first five lines-one would expect the magi to have forgotten the negative aspects of the journey in light of their conversion. In comparing the tone of this monologue to the Ulysses’ monologue in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” we see that Eliot is not concerned with perpetuating a picturesque myth but rather with constructing a realistic-even ordinary-perspective for his characters. This is a major shift for poetry: while it once focused on conventional images of beauty like nature, landscapes and singing birds, Eliot extracts beauty out of the mundane.
As the poem continues, the narrator provides images of the journey, though never describing the landscape directly. In a word, the journey is disastrous: their transportation, the camels, are miserable; their guides, the camel men, are undependable, and the cities are hostile. The wise men “regret” the former times of “summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / and the silken girls bringing sherbet” (8-10). The word “regret” is an interesting choice because there are two relevant meanings: it could mean that the wise men miss, or long for, the former times, or that they feel repentant over them. Both interpretations of the word can be supported: because the wise men are leaving on a winter journey, one would expect them to miss home (and summer); also, considering their spiritual conversion, one would expect the magi to feel repentant over the idleness in which they spent former times. The reader’s uncertainty parallels the uncertainty of the magi throughout the poem. By the end of the first stanza, the magi seem to lack a full understanding of the journey. By the line “that all this was folly” (20), the reader is invited to supply the meaning that the magi have missed.
In the next stanza, the reader is actively engaged in deciphering the meaning of the poem. The magi reach a valley that smells of vegetation, and has a running stream and a water-mill. These are all images of birth-a direct contrast to the images of death in the first stanza. Though opposites, birth and death are connected through the relationship of the snow and the valley-the snow, an image of struggle and death, gives the valley moisture that causes vegetation, a symbol of birth. This relationship between birth and death is revisited later in the poem. The poem continues with a series of images that refer to Christianity. The three trees directly allude to crucifixion-there were three crosses at the crucifixion of Christ. The white horse alludes to the white horse of the second coming that is referred to in the New Testament. The pieces of silver refer to the silver pieces for which Judas betrayed Christ. These images are typical of Eliot in their compressed language and juxtaposition. Collectively, the images tell the story of Christ’s life, albeit briskly. At the end of the stanza, the wise men have found the place of the nativity, and call it “satisfactory” (31). This adjective certainly surprises any Western reader, for whom the nativity is traditionally celebrated as a divine event. That the magi find the nativity only “satisfactory” suggests that they don’t quite understand the gravity of the scene-or that they are not fully converted.
In the last stanza of the poem, the uncertainty of the magi is revealed as the narrator reflects upon the journey. Though he “would do it again” (33), he is still unsure why they were led all that way: for death, or for birth? He is certain that he has seen a birth-the birth of Christ-but he had also seen a death-the death of his old lifestyle. In returning to their kingdoms, they are uncomfortable among the Pagans, “alien people clutching their gods” (42). This passage revisits the complex relationship between birth and death. In Eliot’s time, this passage seems particularly appropriate-much of his other writing deals with the alienation and isolation inspired by the increasingly modern world. The death of an old world brings about a more intricate new world, and the magi experience anxiety about the change. That the magi do not seem to fully comprehend the impact of the birth they have just witnessed shows that though converted, they are unable to truly benefit from their conversion. They are left awaiting another death, regretting past times.
Credited as an inventor of modern poetry, Eliot reflected the uncertainty and complexities of modern life in his poems. Much like the narrator in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator of “Journey of the Magi” is complicated and alienated. Unsure of their desires, the narrators of both poems are unable to make choices. The doubt and hesitation that the magi feel over the impact of Christ’s birth keep them from benefiting from their newfound faith. The conversion of the magi could parallel Eliot’s conversion to modern society: he was a man no longer at ease in the old dispensation of poetry.