Journey of the Magi

T.S. Eliot

‘Journey of the Magi’ shows the Magi’s transformative spiritual journey as he grapples with a new spiritual reality.


T.S. Eliot

Nationality: English

T.S. Eliot, originally American turned British citizen, is remembered today as a literary critic, poet, and editor.

His poems have had a lasting influence on a generation of writers.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Spiritual transformation comes with challenges and emotional turmoil

Speaker: Biblical Magi, likely the poet himself

Emotions Evoked: Contentment, Empathy, Faith, Hope, Regret

Time Period: 20th Century

Although having an overtly religious character. 'Journey of the Magi' presents literary excellence while dealing with the complex human condition and universal struggle with faith and spirituality.

‘Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of lines that 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 in the poem which is only emphasized by the speaker’s direct storytelling. 

Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a long journey:The ways deep and the weather sharp,The very dead of winter.'And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,Lying down in the melting snow.There were times we regrettedThe summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,And the silken girls bringing sherbet.Then the camel men cursing and grumblingand 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 unfriendlyAnd 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, sayingThat 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 continuedAnd arriving at evening, not a moment too soonFinding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,And I would do it again, but set downThis set downThis: were we led all that way forBirth or Death? There was a Birth, certainlyWe had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,But had thought they were different; this Birth wasHard 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.


‘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 manager has no great presence but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t important. 

The true impact of the journey and meeting comes 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. 

You can read more of T.S. Eliot’s poetry here.

Analysis of Journey of the Magi

Stanza One

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

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 that 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.”

Stanza Two

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,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

In the second stanza, a few changes come over the party of travelers. The speaker describes a “dawn” in which they “came down to a temperate valley.” This is a landscape that 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 finally 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 describe the moment. 

Stanza Three

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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 manager 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. 

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Journey of the Magi

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T.S. Eliot

'Journey of the Magi' is a prominent poem of Eliot from his 'Ariel' collection, consisting of short poems meditating on religion and spiritual growth. The poem carries distinct religious and spiritual character found in Eliot's poems published after his conversion to Anglicanism. In 1928, Eliot prefaced a collection of his essays 'For Lancelot Andrewes', declaring himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-catholic in religion." Nevertheless, 'Journey of the Magi' continues to carry Eliot's consistent themes of alienation, the uncertain modern world, and his allusive method.
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20th Century

Published in 1927, 'Journey of the Magi' resonates with the cultural and literary concerns of its times. The poem employs contemporaneously dominant modernist techniques and concerns such as fragmentation, complex imagery, alienation, and disillusionment amidst the uncertain and changing modern world - the postwar world dealing with spiritual and cultural devastation resonated with the poem's concerns.
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Although Eliot was born in America, he abandoned his American citizenship in 1927 for English. Published in 1927, after Eliot's conversion and acceptance of English citizenship, 'Journey of the Magi' can be considered an English poem; nevertheless, the poem presents a universal struggle with faith and spirituality.
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Death preoccupies the poem's thematic concerns as the spiritual rebirth is premised upon the death of the earlier existing world. Magi feels a sense of loss and alienation as he realizes that the essential spiritual renewal with the birth of Jesus marks the end of an earlier world of magic, idols, and paganism. The idea of such a rebirth which occurs after death, is also present in Eliot's major poem 'The Wasteland'.
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'Journey of the Magi' is foregrounded on the biblical Magi's journey towards Bethlehem to see Jesus. The intriguing journey metaphorically presents a journey toward different faith and spiritual transformation. The poem shows the hardships, agony, and loss incurred during such a journey which is essential for rebirth, salvation, and ultimate satisfaction.
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'Journey of the Magi' primarily deals with spiritual rebirth and the agony it causes. The speaker Magi, one of the three wise men Herod sent to see Jesus, reflects on his journey towards Bethlehem, which is a metaphor for the spiritual journey and the hardships one suffers. The poem also refers to Eliot's personal journey towards a different faith, reflecting on the pain and sense of loss incurred during spiritual transformation and ultimate satisfaction.
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'Journey of the Magi' shows the Magi's journey towards Bethlehem, which is extremely challenging as it includes physical hardships such as bad weather, exhaustion, and lack of local support leading to emotional turmoil, doubt, and fatigue. Nonetheless, evoking readers' contentment, Magi completes the arduous journey and achieves spiritual awakening.
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'Journey of the Magi' presents the Magi's arduous and tedious journey filled with physical hardships and discomfort, symbolizing the internal challenges one faces in a journey of spiritual transformation. Such a vivid account of the Magi's journey and his eventual emotional distress and doubt evokes readers' empathy.
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In 'Journey of the Magi,' the completion of the Magi's challenging journey and eventual achievement of spiritual awakening evokes the reader's faith stirring them to stay resolute on their faith and journey towards spirituality through that. The poem's rich religious imagery and allusions accentuate the emotion of faith.
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Unlike T.S. Eliot's pre-conversion poems, 'Journey of the Magi' ends on an optimistic note evoking readers' hope; despite the physical hardships and mental turmoil Magi completes his journey towards Bethlehem, symbolizing the achievement of spiritual transformation and hope for redemption and salvation. The optimistic end of the journey and achievement of spirituality evokes readers' hope for meaning and spirituality in a modern world increasingly becoming disillusioned.
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In the 'Journey of the Magi, the spiritual transformation or rebirth is premised on the old world's death. Magi, too, feels a sense of loss as the spiritual awakening with the birth of Jesus meant the end of the old world of paganism. The sense of loss exudes a feeling of regret for the lost and old world as Eliot captures the ambiguous and complex emotional state of the Magi.
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Despite seeming distinct in temperaments from pre-conversion poems, 'Journey of the Magi' continues Eliot's allusive method. Eliot alludes to a range of sources, including biblical myths and Christian theology, Mathew Arnold's 'Dover Beach', Eliot's 'The Wasteland', 'Gerontion', and 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', Lancelot Andrewes' sermons, classical Greek mythology and pagan beliefs, existential philosophy, and metaphysics, etc.
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'Journey of the Magi,' written after Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism, is often considered a reflection of Eliot's journey towards the new faith. The poem is based on the biblical Magi and his journey toward Bethlehem after Jesus's birth. Nonetheless, the poem is replete with Christian allusion, symbolism, and imagery, including sermons, the Bethlehem star, the stable (where Jesus was born), Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh (gifts brought by Magi for Jesus).
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'Journey of the Magi' presents Magi's resolution and dedication as he completes the journey despite the challenging circumstances. The journey metaphorically represents a journey toward spiritual transformation and awakening, thus symbolizing Magi's resoluteness and devotion towards the faith as he doesn't give up unless he completes the arduous journey.
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'Journey of the Magi' metaphorically explores the journey of spiritual rebirth and transformation, exploring the challenges, discomfort, and doubt incurred in between. Extensively, the poem explores the complex human condition and ambiguous emotions as the spiritual rebirth stands on the death of old beliefs and the world.
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'Journey of the Magi' does not explicitly mention Jesus but revolves around the events of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem. The poem is based on the journey of the biblical Magi he takes to see Jesus after his birth. The encounter of the Magi with Jesus symbolizes Magi's spiritual transformation and addresses the central thematic concern of the poem. Magi's gifts to Jesus also symbolize crucifixion, resurrection, and redemption.
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A significant part of 'Journey of the Magi' is Magi's disillusionment and alienation after he returns to his own land, i.e., to the old world. He feels disconnected from his old world and people leading to a sense of loss and disillusionment as the poem captures the distinct human condition occurring due to radical change in beliefs and spiritual rebirth.
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'Journey of the Magi' represents a mentally arduous and physically challenging journey toward Bethlehem, which Magi undertakes to see Jesus. With its evocative language, the poem captures Magi's struggles, doubts, and discomforts as he completes his journey and attains spiritual rebirth symbolizing the struggle of a journey towards spiritual transformation.
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Dramatic Monologue

'Journey of the Magi' is a dramatic monologue as the speaker, Magi, reflects on his journey toward Bethlehem, revealing his struggles, turmoil, and discomfort. It doesn't follow any set rhyme or meter pattern and even employs fragmentation to present Magi's disillusionment, alienation, and first-person account of mental turmoil.
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Free Verse

'Journey of the Magi' is written in free verse as the poem doesn't follow any set rhyme or meter pattern in its uneven stanzas. Nevertheless, the lines flow into each other as the poem uses enjambment. The poem's rich imagery and rhythm capture the speaker's nuances and emotions.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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