'Journey of the Magi', written in 1927, contains not only material quoted in Eliot's 1926 survey, 'Lancelot Andrewes', and recollections from Eliot's own life (some of which he catalogued when reminiscing inThe Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). It also looks back towards his engagement with the primitive. Like 'The Hollow Men' and parts of The Waste Land, this poem's setting is a desert one. The traditional landscape, however, is never mentioned, being involved indirectly through the details of 'the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory'. The poem is deliberately unconventional: no mention of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But it is conventional in terms of Eliot's earlier poetry; though less dramatic, its conclusion is as apolcalyptic as before. The reader becomes aware that, Nemi-like, the birth of the new priest-king means the end of 'the old dispensation'-- an entire world order -- as 'this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death'. The 'Kingdoms' mentioned are perfectly sensible in the poem's context, but remind readers of Eliot's work of 'death's other Kingdom' and 'death's dream kingdom'. Though explicitly Christian, 'Journey of the Magi' forms between the earlier and later work a bridge over which the reader (with access to the gospel word) may cross into the release of Christianity, the new birth; but, denied that access, the speaker of the poem can only seek relief in death to escape from having to return to the old way in which he is 'no longer at ease'. This old way, 'With an alien people clutching their gods', looks back to the savage world which Eliot had been exploring, the world trapped in the ritual of 'birth, and copulation, and death'. The word 'clutch' has particularly strong sexual connotations in Eliot's work, as when Saint Narcissus writhes 'in his own clutch'. Eliot had criticized Wundt for ignoring sexuality's part in religion. By 'Journey of the Magi', however, we have birth and death but not copulation. The reader is faced with a renunciation both of the sexuality bound up with primitive rites and, for the moment at least, of modern sexuality. Vickery overemphasizes vegetation references by relating the 'temperate valley ... smelling of vegetation' with its 'running stream' to a particular scene in The Golden Bough, and by insisting that the 'water-mill' is that 'in which Tammuz was ground' and thus functions as 'a reminder that death is the price of rebirth'. General hints at fertility ceremonies may be present, demonstrating another continuity in theme between this and earlier poetry; but it is important to see that, though its death and rebirth are also related, Christianity is presented by Eliot as an escape from Frazerian cycles of fertility (in the way that the Buddhist 'Shantih shantih shantih' hinted at such an escape), not as its mere continuation.
From The Savage and the City in the work of T.S. Eliot. Clarendon Press, 1987. Reprinted with permission of the author.