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T. S. Eliot's poem The Journey of the Magi is a religious poem that recounts a classic story of the journey of three wise men from East to Jerusalem to bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. However, this poem also describes the human search for spiritual awakening and the path a person has to walk to reach inner transformation.
The poem is created in the form of narration. It is a monologue of one of the Magi who set out on a journey to see the birth of Jesus Christ. The speaker recounts the severe circumstances of the journey. The narrator is sure that although he would have traveled again in the same conditions, the real purpose of the journey remained a secret. The only gain from the journey was the understanding that some change that would affect the whole world had started.
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The main theme of The Journey of the Magi is the Biblical tale of the birth of Jesus Christ told from the point of view of one of the Magi who traveled from the Far East to Jerusalem to offer presents to the newborn. Through the structure of the poem and detailed description of the events of the journey, the author offered a fresh look at the famous Biblical story. He explained the thoughts and feelings of the sages about the birth of the Messiah and the journey they made.
The Journey of the Magi is also a story of the spiritual journey of any mortal person. Although the poem describes the journey of the three sages, the story acquires a more general characteristic of a spiritual experience of transition of a person from the realm of the material world to the spiritual kingdom of Heaven. This quest is followed by the death of the old identity, the physical body with all its desires, and the birth of a new one, spiritual, pure, and wise.
The Journey of the Magi
The Journey of the Magi is one of the several works that T.S. Eliot created for the series of pamphlets titled Ariel Poems. The poem was written and published in 1927, and it was the eighth in the cycle. Although The Journey of the Magi is a religious poem, it also describes the human search for spiritual awakening and the path a person has to walk to reach inner transformation.
The poem is written in a form of narration; it is a monologue of one of the Magi who went on a journey to see the birth of Jesus Christ. The speaker recounts the difficulties that he and his fellow travelers had to face during their journey. First, he mentions their hardships: the desire to return to their homes, where silken girls serve sweet drinks, the doubts concerning the goals and destination of their journey, and hostile people from towns and villages, which they had to pass by or where they stopped for the night (Eliot, 1927). After the narrator admits that with great difficulties, they managed to find the place that they were looking for, he begins his reflection on the journey. In the final stanzas, the speaker claims that although he would have made the same journey one more time, it is still unclear what the real purpose of their journey was. However, he perceived was that some change in the world had taken place that night because after he had returned home, it became very difficult for him and his fellow Magi to live among people, who started looking alien.
The main theme of The Journey of the Magi is the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ told from the perspective of one of the Magi who traveled from the Far East to Palestine to offer presents to the newly born God. T. Eliot offers a very realistic and detailed description of the severe environment of the trek and the difficulties the travelers encountered. First, he talks about severe physical conditions. Thus, the narrator claims that they set out on a journey in the worst time of the year, during the weather sharp and the very dead winter, and many camel men left them, so they had to do everything by themselves (Eliot, 1927). Next, Eliot describes the psychological stress the Magi had to manage. They frequently regretted the summer palaces and their rich and wealthy homes. Besides, the cities and towns were unfriendly and even hostile to them, and while they were sleeping, the voices in their heads sang that their entire journey was a folly (Eliot, 1927). Such detailed description offers a new perspective and a fresh look at the famous Biblical story since it is obvious that not many people question themselves who the Magi were and why they undertook the long and dangerous journey.
The story that Eliot used in the poem is religious; however, he was not talking about God or any miracles. The author described common people of that time, the Magi, who had to accept the fact that the entire world would inevitably undergo a significant transformation. Some details of the poem support this idea. For example, although the work is titled The Journey of the Magi, Eliot never mentions any signs, for instance, the bright star, which is present in the Gospel, that would guide the travelers to the place where the birth of Christ had to take place. Second, the scene of nativity, the event that forced the Magi to travel that far, which should have been the apogee of their journey, is also absent. The only thing that is mentioned is that they managed to find the place and arrive on time and not a moment too soon (Eliot, 1927). It is also not indicated what was the place as if the narrator was not interested or surprised with the location of the birth of the Messiah. Description of encounter with the Holy family is also absent in the poem probably because Eliot wanted not to discuss the event of the nativity but to demonstrate the reaction and the feelings of the Magi. It was significant for the author to emphasize the importance of the psychological aspect of the meeting of the Magi with the newly born God. Thus, it was obvious for them that their religion and beliefs would soon be invalid and the world order would change dramatically.
It is possible to state that The Journey of the Magi is also a story of the spiritual journey of any regular mortal person during which the body still craves sensual pleasures and enjoyment, while the spirit rises to a new level. Although the poem describes the journey of the three wise men to a distant city of Jerusalem to honor the newborn Christ, the story can acquire characteristics of a spiritual journey of a person from the realm of the material world to the kingdom of Heaven. This quest involves the death of the old self, a physical body with all its desires, and the birth of a new one, spiritual, pure, and wise. This transformation is possible only when the dangerous journey is made during the worst period when the body is unprotected and forced to face difficult challenges.
The structure of the poem allows understanding clearly how the author wanted to divide and unfold the story. The poem includes three stanzas. The first one tells about the beginning of the journey and its severe conditions. The second stanza explains what the Magi achieved through the course of their journey and how they reached the city where Jesus was born. The last stanza offers the view of one of the travelers on how the journey affected him and demonstrates his reflection about the influence of the birth of Christ. Eliot does not use any metaphors or other literary techniques. His style is simple; the images and descriptions he offers are realistic. Since the poem is in the form of a monologue, it allows the readers to understand the character of the narrator better and look at the journey to Jerusalem from his perspective.
The narrator, one of the Magi, represents the symbol of the spiritual quest, which was not finished yet. While the speaker in the poem recalls the conditions of their journey, he stresses that all of the participants from time to time thought about pleasures and comforts they decided to leave behind. The hardships frequently made them regret listening and obeying the call of the higher spirit and setting out on the journey. Such crisis usually indicates that the person faces some test, and if he or she passes it, he or she will reach perfection.
The quest of the Magi continues after they managed to survive the cold nights and fight the temptation to abandon their mission and return home. The reward they received was the temperate valley, where they could rest and recover and where their new life could begin (Eliot, 1927). Eliot uses the images of beautiful, calm, and yet powerful nature to explain that the travelers were moving in the right direction. The stream that ran through the valley was a symbol of the source of life. The water mill that is beating the darkness must symbolize the power of will and spiritual strength to dispel all doubts and sensual desires to become a better person and reach a higher level of existence (Eliot, 1927). Similarly, the image of an old white horse that galloped away through the meadow is a symbol of the results of the positive transformation that can be achieved by any living creature. After such transformation, even an old person can gain the strength to run as a youngster and move to a new and better mode of life.
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The transformation of the Magi gave them an opportunity to see more clearly the reality around and events that await the newborn Christ and the entire world. However, it is unclear whether the narrator truly understands what exactly everything around him means. He sees three trees on the low sky, which must be the three trees out of which the crosses for Christ and the other two men, the thieves, will be carved (Eliot, 1927). He notices how people dice for the pieces of silver an allusion to the silver that Judas will trade Christ for. Additionally, there are empty wine-skins a symbol of a wine that was served during the last supper before Christ's crucifixion (Eliot, 1927). Nonetheless, it is clear from the last lines that the Magi did not accomplish their quest. All of them returned home, though the transformation they overcame during the journey did not allow them to enjoy their previous lives. They were no longer at ease in their countries, and people seemed alien to them (Eliot, 1927). The narrator understands that he failed because he waits for his death, which means that he knows that the Kingdom of Heaven is closed to him since he is the priest of old gods. However, he is still glad about another death, the death of his old self, because he perceives that this is the only way for a new world to emerge.
In conclusion, The Journey of the Magi should not be perceived merely as a poem that repeats the well-known story of the three sages from the East who traveled a long way to bring gifts to the Messiah. The images of the Magi symbolize humanity as a whole and a single common person in particular. The quest of the Magi is the quest of all people to find a path to a better and more spiritual and virtuous form of existence. Their journey is an attempt of a man to go beyond materialistic and mortal life and reach eternal life.