Journey of the Magi

1 January 2017

Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi describes the physical quest of the three wise men, which correlates to the author’s own spiritual journey of conversion to the Christian faith. Through this concept, it is explored that the notion of journeys are constantly changing and the end product is not always what you expect. It also reveals how the experiences of the journey will affect ones perspective, as the persona’s emotions are never stable. The poem explores the themes of spirituality and death and rebirth through the use of figurative language, imagery and symbolism. Journey of the Magi is written in blank verse.

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This maintains the formal metrical structure whilst still giving the author flexibility to write in the manner of natural speech, giving the poem a sense of rhythm and flow. The poem is written as a dramatic monologue from the perspective of one magus, adopting a conversational tone. This perspective creates a personal atmosphere of the speaker’s uncertainty and hardship of the journey of spiritual growth, and allows the reader to fully experience and empathise with the difficulties that the Magi and Eliot have endured in their respective journeys. The first two stanzas specifically depict the difficulty and hardship of the magi’s journey.

The imagery in ‘the very dead of winter’ evokes a sense of death and despair, and highlights the hopelessness that the magi feel in their lives. The sibilance and tactile and gustatory imagery in ‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet’, heightens their struggle and temptation of turning back to their old way of life and they begin to doubt their decision of embarking on this journey. Eliot’s use of present participles, such as cursing, running, wanting emphasize the continuity and immediateness of the events.

The repetition of ‘and’ enhances the incantatory rhythm, reinforcing their frustration and thus further describing the arduous journey. This constant struggle is parallel to the author’s own spiritual obstacles of returning to his previous sinful lifestyle and the feeling of alienation from those who still worship their heathen gods. Furthermore, it presents an inner conflict of letting go of the past and moving on with life. The third stanza markedly begins to portray a more positive connotation of their journey through biblical allusions and the imagery of lush vegetation and growth, which contrasts to the pessimism in the previous stanzas.

Their arrival at dawn is associated with the idea of a new day and a new beginning, foreshadowing the importance of the Christ child’s birth and hence, the beginning of a new era. The image of water in nature is a symbol of fertility, new life and baptism, suggests that the running stream will take this life-giving water afar to evangelize peoples of all nations. This also illustrates the effect that one person’s journey will have on others, initiating their own unique journey.

The visual imagery of ‘three trees on the low sky’ indicates positive associations with shelter and protection and quite possibly is referring to the Holy Trinity. ‘Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory’ implies that the magi have reached their destination of witnessing the birth of Jesus, however their apparent reaction is opposite to the expected euphoria. This birth has marked the end of an era of magic and paganism and denoted the start of another. The outcome of journey was not what they were expecting and perhaps has left them more perplexed than when they first began the journey.

One of the central themes is presented in the paradox of how new life can only be reborn from death and that death is necessary for another life cycle to begin. In a physical sense, the death of the body marks the beginning of eternal life. The persona expresses his confusion of the whole meaning of his journey in ‘I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different’. The magus anticipates his own death because it will release him from his suffering in a world where happiness can never be achieved.

This the only way he can truly be physically liberated from an earthly world and be reborn spiritually in the kingdom of God. Journey of the Magi examines both the positive and negative sides to journeys and the inevitability of dying in order to be reborn. Through analysing this text, I have learnt that both physical and inner journeys are ever changing, filled with struggles and angst, optimism and hope. Sometimes the outcome is not what you expect, but you must learn to accept the changes. It will not signify the end of your journey, but the beginning of another.

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