The speaker of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi is one of the magi of the title, who delineates his arduous journey to witness the birth of Christ. What is interesting is that the tone of this poem is not of wonderment, but of powerlessness. The man who witnesses such seminal moment in the history of the world isn’t truck by wonder, but simply exhausted, perhaps even resentful as he has been forced to leave the old order to witness this moment. His journey is also in a sense compared to the suffering of Christ through the tapestry of symbols and allusions in the poem. A number of references like “beating darkness” (symbolic of baptism), the “vine leaves” (symbolizing the blood shed during crucifixion) and many others draw a parallel between his journey and that of Christ. He projects a sense of isolation in a world that has changed too fast for him to be able to adapt to it as well as that of ambivalence.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
This poem starts with a Nativity sermon by one Lancelot Andrewes (1662). While this may seem like just a quote at the first glance, it is important to analyse this as an instance of anachronism that permeates throughout the poem. Anachronism is essentially a discrepancy with regard to chronology. The speaker goes back and forth between different periods and the narrative is not chronologically linear. It is also important to note the tone of the poem since the beginning. The word “cold” in the beginning of the poem adds a sense of melancholy to the poem. Words like “cold”, “worst”. “sharp” and “dead” make it abundantly clear that the speaker is not enjoying this journey and has no choice in it. This sets the tone of isolation in the “dead of the winter” that is found in the rest of the poem.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Perhaps the word “regretted” in this stanza encapsulates this part of the poem. The camels gall in their stubbornness, showing that nothing is in their favour. Right after the speaker delineates the isolated image in the present moment, he juxtaposes it with his past pleasures, invoking a since of nostalgia from within him for his home where he had everything he wanted. It is very important to note that there is a clear juxtaposition of the sense of isolation and powerlessness in the winter and that of absolute power and dynamism in the castle.
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 hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
This is very clearly a tale of hardship and this idea is reiterated in this stanza. The speaker makes it clear that they have come far from their comfort zone and that there is much that they have left behind. He speaks not of adulation and wonderment, but of suffering and hardship. The setting is still bleak and desolate, and he has used pathetic fallacy to help the nature reflect the mood of the speaker. He says that everything around him is hostile, even people that they finally come across don’t offer them shelter.
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.
They have accepted their situation and decide to travel all night. But even as they do so, they are still feeling resentful. At this point, it is sufficed to say that a sense of regret at started clouding their minds and they didn’t wish to face these hardships.
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-millbeating the darkness,And three trees on the low sky,And an old white horse galloped in 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 imformation, and sowe continuedAnd arrived at evening, not a momenttoo soonFinding the place; it was (you may say)satisfactory.
While everything happens in this particular stanza, and the reader has a hard time catching up, every part of this stanza is fragmented and then put together to form a whole. They come at “dawn” (perhaps symbolizing hope) to a valley. The valley in this context is very important because in contrast to the death and desolation of winter, the valley symbolizes fertility and life. they smell of vegetation soothes them after the kind of hardship that they have been through. The “three trees in the low sky” is perhaps the most important part of this entire poem. This is not only prominent use of anachronism but also one of the first overt usages of Biblical allusions. The idea of the “old white horse” and the “vine-leaves” show deeply Christian connotations and evoke an image of a devout man who is narrating. However, it is the end which is the most striking. After seeing all these awe inspiring scenes, the speaker is satisfied. Perhaps he is too tired and drained to actually take in the experience.
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, 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, theseKingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,With an alien people clutching their gods.I should be glad of another death.
The idea of “Birth or Death?” captures the gist of this poem. One of the most prominent themes in this poem is the demise of the Pagan order and rise of the Christian one. In this stanza he brings out an inner conflict of a man who is caught in between two shifting dimensions and doesn’t know how to adapt to it. For him, the birth of Christ and of a new order was a “bitter agony” because this meant the death of everything they knew. In the end he closes with wsaying that now all he can do is wait for his death.