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Essay on T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

Updated on May 28, 2010

Journey of the Magi Poem

 

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 when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.

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 led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had 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.

~T.S. Eliot

Three Journeys of Wise Men

In T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi," he writes about the journey of the Biblical wise men on their way to witness the birth of the Messiah. During this poem, he alludes to the life and death--the journey--of Jesus Christ. A third journey, I believe, is also hidden cleverly within this poem, the spiritual journey of a believer in Christ.

Overview - The Magi's Journey

At first, T. S. Eliot points the reader to the Wise Men. These men set out in the "dead of winter" to witness the coming of the promised One (l. 5). During their pilgrimage, they endure suffering from the elements and do without the comforts to which they are accustomed.

Doing without their previous luxuries, they remember and "regretted/ the summer palaces on the slopes, the terraces,/ and the silken girls bringing sherbet"--their lives before this laborious journey began (l. 8-10). Now, instead of the summer-time when everything is warm and plants are in bloom, it's winter and everything is cold and dead.

The "camel men [are] cursing and grumbling [...] wanting their liquor and women" (l. 11-12).  The Wise Men are fighting discouraging thoughts that are "singing" loudly that this journey isn't worth it (l. 19). Then, the sun comes up after traveling all night and they smell the vegetation. This is symbolic of a new season beginning and encouragement to the men. They do finally get to witness the birth of the One of whom the prophets of old spoke. Then, they return to their "Kingdoms" (ll. 40).

Only now, after this experience, their lives are forever different. They are, "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation" (ll. 41).  And the ones who used to be their friends are now viewed by them as "alien people clutching their gods" (ll. 42).  They are home, but no longer feel at home.

Jesus's Journey

At second glance, the reader can see the symbols T. S. Eliot hides within the poem that concerns more about Jesus then just His birth. "Three trees on the low sky" is symbolic of Jesus's death on the cross between two thieves also being crucified (ll. 35). The "white horse," the "vine-leaves," and the line that includes "pieces of silver" allude to stories about Jesus in the Bible (ll. 36-38).

Also, according to the faith in which Eliot belonged, "in the old dispensation" speaks of what is known as the end of the Dispensation of the Law and the beginning of the Dispensation of Grace (ll. 41). It is believed this change of dispensations was brought about by the birth and death of Jesus. One reference from the Bible, John 1:17 states, "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Jesus walked this earth from the time of His birth with one mission to accomplish--death on the cross--to die for the sins of mankind.

A Christian's Journey

There's more. The reader may also perceive that this poem is not merely about the two former "journeys"--one of the Magi, the other of Jesus. There is much more T. S. Eliot is trying to convey. His main theme, paralleling the journey of the Wise Men, is the birth and death of a Christian--not a physical birth and death, but a birth and death that happens spiritually.

It is believed that when one becomes a Christian, he or she becomes "born-again." Just as the wise men made their journey to see Jesus born, a Christian begins his or her spiritual journey at the time of their born-again experience.

As with the wise men on their quest, a Christian sometimes remembers and regrets the past life of sin and "silken girls bringing sherbet," and will hear those around him or her "cursing and grumbling [...] and wanting their liquor and women"(ll. 10-12).  This is no longer an attractive life to one on the road to know Christ.

Sometime during a believer's journey in Christianity, one will inevitably come to a crisis of belief, experiencing the difficulty of traveling all night in the cold without the luxuries of the past life of ease, when there was no conviction or guilt. Doubt and discouragement sings in the ears that believing in something I cannot see or feel is all in my foolish mind. All believers come to this point in one way or another.

Then, at spiritual "dawn," the dark night of traveling has ended and the believer inhales deeply, with his or her heart whispering, "I can see again" (ll. 21).  As Eliot pens, "with a running stream"--fresh water to restore my soul, --"and a water-mill beating the darkness"--all of these thought that have clouded my mind have been chased away and all discouragement hs subsided (ll. 23). I once again see the cross of Calvary ("three trees") and remember the awesome price He paid for me. I thought I lost my way, but now realize I am still on the right path (ll. 24).

"Vegetation" means the Christian is coming to a place of spiritual grownth or maturity (ll. 22). At this place, the believer looks back. Has this journey been about birth or death? The one coming into spiritual adulthood realizes that being born-again and dying to the desires of self are not separate events, but intertwined and inseparable. And they are not really events, but a process, a journey.

One's own desires, ambitions, and plans have to die to truly be a follower of the Lord. I'm sure that T. S. Eliot came to this place when he wrote this poem. He also had to have greatly identified with the Apostle Paul who wrote in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..." and who also wrote in I. Corinthians 15:31, "I die daily."

At the closing of the poem, T. S. Eliot speaks of another death, this time physical death. He must have been familiar with this scripture found in Philippians 3:13, "I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." He scanned the past. What is there to go back to? Those I used to know are now foreigners to me. I no longer feel comfortable here and I long for "another death" that will bring me to my eternal home (ll. 43).

Comments

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    • profile image

      Kathy 

      3 years ago

      That addserses several of my concerns actually.

    • jivn profile image

      jivn 

      7 years ago from Croatia

      good grief! lit crit on ts eliot, no less. i had begun to think that hubpages was the home of people for whom english is a second language...now do the wasteland...or perhaps i will, for a laugh

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