Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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? There was a Birth, certainly,
- The beginning of this stanza rockets us forward in time, or just suddenly wakes us up to the fact that this story is being told way after the actual journey took place, as if the narrator's sitting by a fire in his old age, mulling over the events.
- Now, in the present, he notes that he "would do it again." So even through the hardship and the grumpy camels and the uncertainty, he views the journey as worthwhile in retrospect.
- Oh, but here comes a "but," and he further emphasizes that the "but" clause is super important by telling us Shmoopers not once but twice to "set down this."
- That's slightly old-fashioned language for "write this down."
- Side note! The "set down this" bit is a subtle reference to Shakespeare's Othello. For more on this, be sure to swing on by our "Shout Outs" page.
- Turns out, the Magus has an important question that's still bugging him: "were we led all the way for / Birth or Death?"
- He begins to answer his own question by saying that there was indeed a birth, referring to the birth of Jesus, of course. But what about the Death thing?
- It's an ominous question with a couple of implications. One can be "led to one's death," and it is now plausible (though, given the life spans of people at that time, not entirely probable) that the Magus is speaking from a time after Jesus' death.
- If this question is so important, though, we're betting that the Magus is going to elaborate on what he might mean by this whole Birth/Death thing. Let's see.
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
- Here we go: a whole passage devoted to the explanation of what the Magus means when he asks whether they had come so far to witness a birth or a death.
- The narrator reiterates that they had, in fact, seen a literal birth. No one was doubting that there was actually a newborn baby in that manger.
- He seems to be indicating, then, that he's speaking metaphorically about the whole death thing.
- He goes on to say that he has "seen birth and death"—and we're pretty sure he means that literally, this time—but then goes on to say that he "had thought they were different." Interesting…
- The implication here is that whatever he witnessed in that barn in Bethlehem changed the way he thought about birth and death. Previously he'd thought of them as different—even opposite—things, and now he's not so sure anymore.
- But he doesn't stop there. The Magus says that the Birth (notice the capitalization, a la, Jesus, Lord and Savior, etc.) was actually "hard and bitter agony" for all of the Magi.
- In fact, it was so agonizing that the Magus compares it to Death (again with the capitalization. Could that possibly be another premonition of the Crucifixion?), and then goes on to say "our death." Since he's still alive, we can assume he's gone back to talking about death figuratively.
- Here, the Magus shows his full hand, and reveals that the birth of Jesus signaled the end of an era. What era? The one in which people like the Magi and their particular religion and culture were the ones in power.
- So while they were compelled (literally!) to go and bring gifts to this child that an angel had called a King, they were also bringing gifts to the very person who would grow up to establish, quite literally, a new world order. An order that didn't include the Magi and their ways.
- If that's not as close as one can get to dying without actually dying, we're not sure what is.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
- At this point, the Magus goes back to telling the story, saying that after the birth of Jesus, the Magi packed up all their stuff and headed back to their respective palaces. Sherbet, here they come.
- Their return, however, was far from celebratory – instead of bringing back awesome news, it seems as though they came back disconsolate (i.e., miserable, intensely uncomfortable, and way down in the dumps).
- The middle part of this passage elaborates upon that a little bit, as the Magus details more about "the old dispensation"—which basically means the old ways, and specifically in this case, the old religion—and his subjects, who now seem to him like "an alien people" clutching false idols.
- So the Magi come back to their same kingdoms, but in their eyes, the whole place has changed. They've seen the coming of a new kind of power, and it's not their power. Suddenly, their entire culture seems poised on the brink of utter irrelevance. Bummer, dude.
- All this news is stressful to the max. So stressful and horrific, in fact, that the Magus ends his tale by wishing for another death. This time, though, it's literal, and it's his own. Yikes.
- But wait! Couldn't he also be referring to the death of the baby Jesus? That might be one sinister way of interpreting that last line, but there's no mention of anger in the poem, more like a kind of bleak resignation. Or if you wanted to put a more positive spin on it, you could say that he's waiting for the death of Christ because the Crucifixion and Resurrection bring with them all kinds of good stuff for the earth—redemption and forgiveness and all that jazz.
- In any case, the Magus is just biding his time, waiting expectantly for various expiration dates that will signify the true change from paganism to Christianity: the death of the old ways to make room for the new.