‘Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot is a three stanza poem which is separated into sets of lines which vary in length. The first stanza contains twenty lines, the second: eleven, and the third: twelve. The poem does not have a structured rhyme scheme, although there are a number of instances in which end words or phrases repeat. This creates a sense of unity to the poem which is only emphasized by the speaker’s direct storytelling.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Journey of the Magi
‘Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot describes the terrible conditions through which the Magi traversed to meet the Christ child after his birth.
The poem begins with the speaker listing out all of the troubles he and his men faced on their way to the manger in which Christ was born. The weather was freezing and there was hardly any food or shelter. Every time they came to a town they were turned away. Even the camels were suffering.
In the second stanza the men get to where they were going and find it to be simply, “satisfactory.” The manger has no great presence but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t important.
The true impact of the journey and meeting come after the men have returned home. They are no longer the people they were before they set off. The speaker states that he longs for a second death through which he is able to join God.
Analysis of Journey of the Magi
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who is one of the traveling Magi, starts the poem by giving a broad overview of the journey he and the other Magi embarked on. It was not a pleasant trip. They had a “cold coming…of it.” The men were forced to deal with terrible weather that made everything harder. The speaker reflects on the days of travel as having occurred in the “worst time of the year / For a journey. Due to the fact that they could not choose when they traveled, they had to face these conditions.
The next two lines expand the details of their journey and the troubles they had to face along the way.
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
The men were not the only ones who suffered at this time, their camels, which were made to walk through the landscape bearing the men and their supplies were “galled, sore-footed, refractory.” They eventually ended up “Lying down in the melting snow.”
It is interesting that the poet chose to begin this piece, which is about the birth of Christ, in such a way. It does away with the image of majestic beings riding in to visit the child, instead they are painted as deeply human. They suffered just as anyone would traversing the countryside. The speaker even states at one point that “There were times we regretted,” or missed, “The summer palaces…the terraces…And the silken girls bringing sherbet.” These were all elements of their home which were familiar to them and without which they were made to travel.
The following lines, which are crafted in an ever worsening list, describe a litany of problems the men faced. There were the “camel men” who were often “cursing and grumbling.” At points they even ran away from the camps seeking out “liquor and women.” The campsites were often cold as the fires went out, and there were no “shelters” to keep the men and animals dry.
In addition to these troubles with nature, they faced “hostile” cities and “unfriendly” towns which were unwilling to help them. The men had a “hard time…of it.” By the time they got to the end of their journey they had learned to prefer traveling at night. This way they could avoid the worst that the landscape, and the cities it held, had to offer.
There were even times, on the way to meet the son of God, that they said “this was all folly.”
In the second stanza a few changes come over the party of travellers. The speaker describes a “dawn” in which they “came down to a temperate valley.” This is a landscape which is quite unfamiliar to them as they had spent so much time traveling through such terrible conditions. The valley is “below the snow line” and it smells “of vegetation.” It is clear from these first lines that they have come to a much better place.
There is running water and a “water-mill beating” in the dark. Eventually the men make their way to a….
Tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel.
They inquired at this tavern, looking for information about Christ and they received none. The men continue to travel and “arrive at evening.” It was, the speaker states, not a moment too soon. Everyone was close to their final breaking point having faced hunger, terribly cold weather, shelterless nights, and inhospitable towns. One might expect the speaker to revel in his arrival to the manger where Christ was born, this is not the case.
He says that the pace they final came to was “satisfactory,” nothing more. This could be a reference more to the physicality of the place rather than the momentous nature of the occasion, but either way, it is a strikingly drab and depressing way to described the moment.
In the third stanza the speaker halts his description of the journey and moves on to describe how he feels about the entire experience now. It is clear he has terrible memories of the trip, but what of the manger itself?
He begins by saying it was “a long time ago” but that he would “do it again.” It was, at least in his mind, a journey worth undertaking. It is at this point in the poem the speaker directs a question to his listener to whom he is telling the story. He asks,
..were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
He knows that there “certainly” was a “Birth.” This is the case as there was “evidence and no doubt,” but what of the death? In the next lines he equates birth and death. This particular birth was so painful to the Magi and their companions that it was “like Death, our death.”
After the trip was over they “returned to [their] places, these Kingdoms.” When they arrived there, and attempted to settle back into the lives they once knew and loved, they were “no longer at ease.” Everything had changed for them. The men did not feel comfortable in this world in which “alien people [were] clutching their gods,” when they had seen the true God.
The poem concludes with the speaker stating that he would be glad to die another death. Perhaps this one could bring him to his final rest alongside God.