The Journey of the Magi
The first paragraph presents the detail of the journey in a manner which arrives at no vision of experience. The present participles and the paratactic syntax, presenting one thing after another in a simple narrative, hold us to the banalities of romantic travellers. The voice recounting them is tired as if repeating the too well known. Only at the beginning and the end of the paragraph is there something to catch the attention of the modern reader, so far as he knows what the Magi did not know. Their 'cold coming' might suggest the cold coming Christ himself had, as the carols now tell it. Again, 'That this was all folly' becomes a commonplace Christian paradox when we know that they were seeking Christ. We are under some pressure to supply the meaning they missed.
In the rest of the poem that pressure increases. Are the images of the middle paragraph really charged with mysterious significance, some 'Symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer'? They do have a dream-like clarity. At the same time they seem to offer themselves rather readily for allegorical exegesis; the valley of life; the three crosses of Calvary; the White Horse of the Second Coming; the Judas-like world. The immediate mystery of the images evaporates under such interpretation, to be replaced by 'the Christian mystery'. The primary sensory associations give way to an idea, and we find we are involved in a meaning beyond the Magi's actual experience. It is the same in the final paragraph, except that here we are confronted directly with the abstract idea. The Magus is baffled by the apparent contradictions of Birth and Death, and is left simple wanting to die.
From Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.
'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.
"Journey of the Magi" is the monologue of a man who has made his own choice, who has achieved belief in the Incarnation, but who is still part of that life which the Redeemer came to sweep away. Like Gerontion, he cannot break loose from the past. Oppressed by a sense of death-in-life (Tiresias' anguish "between two lives"), he is content to submit to "another death" for his final deliverance from the world of old desires and gods, the world of "the silken girls." It is not that the Birth that is also Death has brought him hope of a new life, but that it has revealed to him the hopelessness of the previous life. He is resigned rather than joyous, absorbed in the negation of his former existence but not yet physically liberated from it. Whereas Gerontion is "waiting for rain" in this life, and the hollow men desire the "eyes" in the next life, the speaker here has put behind him both the life of the senses and the affirmative symbol of the Child; he has reached the state of desiring nothing. His negation is partly ignorant, for he does not understand in what way the Birth is a Death; he is not aware of the sacrifice. Instead, he himself has become the sacrifice; he has reached essentially, on a symbolic level true to his emotional, if not to his intellectual, life, the humble, negative stage that in a mystical progress would be prerequisite to union. Although in the literal circumstances his will cannot be fixed upon mystical experience, because of the time and condition of his existence, he corresponds symbolically to the seeker as described by St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Having first approached the affirmative symbol, or rather, for him, the affirmative reality, he has experienced failure; negation is his secondary option.
The quest of the Magi for the Christ child, a long arduous journey against the discouragements of nature and the hostility of man, to find at last, a mystery impenetrable to human wisdom, was described by Eliot in strongly colloquial phrases adapted from one of Lancelot Andrewes' sermons of the Nativity:
A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, "the very dead of winter."
Also in Eliot's thoughts were the vast oriental deserts and the camel caravans and marches described in Anabase, by St.-J. Perse. He himself had begun work in 1926 on an English translation of that poem, publishing it in 1930. Other elements of his tone and imagery may have come from Kipling's "The Explorer" and from Pound's "Exile's Letter." The water mill was recollected from his own past; for in The Use of Poetry, speaking of the way in which "certain images recur, charged with emotion," he was to mention "six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill." In vivifying the same incident, the fine proleptic symbolism of "three trees on the low sky," a portent of Calvary, with the evocative image of "an old white horse" introduces one of the simplest and most pregnant passages in all of his work:
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.
Here are allusions to the Communion (through the tavern "bush"), to the paschal lamb whose blood was smeared on the lintels of Israel, to the blood money of Judas, to the contumely suffered by Christ before the Crucifixion, to the soldiers casting lots at the foot of the Cross, and, perhaps, to the pilgrims at the open tomb in the garden.
The arrival of the Magi at the place of Nativity, whose symbolism has been anticipated by the fresh vegetation and the mill "beating the darkness," is only a "satisfactory" experience. The narrator has seen and yet he does not fully understand; he accepts the fact of Birth but is perplexed by its similarity to a Death, and to death which he has seen before:
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?
Were they led there for Birth or for Death? or, perhaps, for neither? or to make a choice between Birth and Death? And whose Birth or Death was it? their own, or Another's? Uncertainty leaves him mystified and unaroused to the full splendor of the strange epiphany. So he and his fellows have come back to their own Kingdoms, where,
... no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods
(which are now alien gods), they linger not yet free to receive "the dispensation of the grace of God." The speaker has reached the end of one world, but despite his acceptance of the revelation as valid, he cannot gaze into a world beyond his own.
From T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.