Journey of the Magi
Merry Christmas! It's a birth-of-Jesus poem!
"Journey of the Magi," though often thought of as minor in T.S. Eliot's overall oeuvre (a fancy French term that basically means "everything the guy's ever done"), is nevertheless cited by academics as a piece that signifies a major transformation in the poet's career. And it should be—it was composed right around the time that Eliot converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, in 1927. Not to go into too much religious detail right here and now, but let's just say that the switch was from "not really very religious at all" to "pretty devout, actually." It was kind of a big deal.
So "Journey of the Magi," then, often gets scrutinized for containing bits and pieces of Eliot's feelings about said conversion, even though the poem itself isn't (on the surface, anyway) about Eliot at all. Instead, the piece details the thoughts of one particular Magus (that's the singular version of Magi)—one of the Three Wise Men. You know, the dudes bringing frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus? Right—those guys.
This poem takes place just a smidge before the wise men get to the stable. It details the hardships of the journey, the skepticism of the Magus (seems like they left that part out of the Bible), and the landscape of Bethlehem. In the end, the narrator is shaken to his very core by what he sees, because change, it is a-comin', and change can be scary business.
You might be able to see, then, where people get this whole idea that the narrative is also, subtext-wise, about Eliot's own conversion (a word that means change). After "Journey," which was published in 1930, Eliot didn't write a whole lot else—or rather, not a whole lot that we get particularly excited about. His gigantic works of literature—namely, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land"—had already been published, and had put T.S. Eliot on the map as one of the greatest poetic minds of his time. But this poem, as we'll see in a minute, is much more than just a Christmas poem. Even though the story at first seems simple, the piece teems with intricate symbols, obscure references, and layers of subtext. Sudden religiosity or no, this is still very recognizably T.S. Eliot.
Why Should I Care?
For one thing, it's always kind of neat to see traditional stories played with a bit—especially by authors who are the best of their kind at such playing. The Bible doesn't get into the wise men's heads, really, and so "Journey of the Magi" fills in a gap, which is always cool. But what if we don't really know the Bible? Or its stories? What if we're not Christian? What could this poem possibly have to tell us?
A lot, as it turns out. If we move for a minute past the Biblical nature of this poem, what the thing's really about is change. And we've all had to deal with that. Moving to a new town. First day of high school. Puberty. Any kind of spiritual revelation, Christian or otherwise. Going to college. You get the picture. All of these things are turning points in our lives, and you know what? They can be terrifying. Even if they turn out to be pretty awesome in the end (college, for instance, is just the best, once you're done hyperventilating about it).
This happens to be the case for the Magus in this poem. If you're familiar with the traditional Biblical story, you know that the Magi saw an angel that proclaimed to them some seriously Good News: that a savior was going to be born in Bethlehem. We're talking here about a person who was going to bring the kind of peace and prosperity to the world the likes of which the world had never seen. Couldn't be a bad thing, right? Right.
Except for the fact that well, hmm, what is this change going to look like? Maybe it'll be stressful, maybe it'll throw some Kings (which is what the Magi were) out of power. We're betting at least one of them was going, "Hmm, I dunno about all this…"
See where we're going? Even in the face of something that's supposed to be the best thing ever, there's fear and uncertainty and doubt. It's what we all grapple with when we're trying to deal with major change, too. Eliot's poem is just one really unique way to tell us about one man's trouble with transition, and to help us see that even seemingly doubt-free things like religious conversion can be way more complicated than they first appear.