Eliot was writing around the time when folks were all about making poetry sound real. People wanted poetry of the people, by the people, and for the people, so that poetry had to sound like everyday speech. For the most part. The movement had been kicked off a little further back by Walt Whitman and, even a little before him, William Wordsworth, but some might say the crest of the wave really came with the Modernists.
So you can pick this poem out, in a lot of ways, by the nature of the "Speaker" and the way that the poem sounds just like everyday speech. With phrases like "then at dawn we came to a temperate valley" (21) and "all this was a long time ago, I remember, / and I would do it again" (32-33), the poem sounds almost like, well, prose. In fact, there's a lot about this poem's sound that ties it to Eliot's much longer and more complicated piece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". You can check out the "Sound Check" part of that analysis for more on ways to identify classically Eliot-sounding poetry.
The title, mercifully, is pretty self-explanatory. "The Journey of the Magi" is a story about… the journey… of the Magi. Great. But of course, there's more to it than meets the eye. There always is with Eliot.
After all, he could have just called it "The Magus," or "The Three Wise Men," or "The Birth of Jesus as Told by a Magus," or what have you. That means that the actual phrasing of the title is significant in a couple of ways. For one, "The Journey of the Magi" sounds a whole lot like "The Gift of the Magi," which is a classic short story by O. Henry.
Also, the "Journey" part of the title packs quite the meaningful punch. Not only significant because the story details the literal journey of these men, but also because the poem describes a figurative journey. That is, the journey from pagan to Christian, the conversion of the author from agnostic to devout, and the drastic change that Christ's birth brings to the world as we know it.
So the "Journey," here, is all kinds of multifaceted. In order to narrow it down to something manageable for the purposes of the poem, it becomes "The Journey of the Magi." But in reality, it's a whole bundle of different journeys and changes, of which the Magi are a mere part.
Let's get real.
The Magi are moving, approximately, from the area just north of present-day Saudi Arabia—so, nearish to the Persian Gulf—towards the Mediterranean and present-day Israel. Since "Journey of the Magi" begins by noting how cold it is, and since Persia really doesn't have winter to speak of, we can tell right off the bat that the Magi are nearing the end of their journey and so must be relatively close to Bethlehem, which is right next to Jerusalem. (It's about halfway between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, if you're interested.)
Based on lines 17-18 and then 21, we can figure out that the poem starts with the Magi approximately two days' travel away from Bethlehem. (Which isn't all that far, considering they were traveling on camels.) So the bulk of the poem, then, takes place in the valley that contains Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both of which are hugely important cities to the Christian faith.
But all that's just geography. What does it mean for our poem? For our Magi, the setting is ten kinds of miserable. Think the worst backpacking trip you've ever been on. It's dirty, you're freezing, your group is bickering amongst itself, and every time you run across anything resembling civilization, it's even worse than the camping has been. No good. The end of your destination is a little better—at least you're not getting snowed on—but it's still not the world's friendliest place.
Things get a bit confusing in that last stanza. But if we look at line 41, we can see where the Magus says "these Kingdoms." Based on that, we can reasonably assume that he's speaking from his palace, years after the original journey. So we can also infer, from the beginning of the poem, that it's probably hot, and sunny, and luxurious as he's relating this tale. The Magus doesn't really seem to be reveling in it by the end of the poem, though, so maybe the setting here is less important than his state of mind.
On one level, the speaker here is mega-obvious. The "I" in the poem is very clearly set up as a Magus, one of the three kings making the long trek to Bethlehem to offer gifts to the baby Jesus. We can almost see this particular speaker as a grandfather-type, hanging out by a fire, telling someone this story that, at the outset, looks awfully like the ol' "having to walk ten miles to school uphill both ways in the snow" story.
Of course, this tale is decidedly more somber, and towards the end, when the point is really reinforced that the narrator is speaking about the long ago and far away, the Magus's tone moves from mere storytelling to almost painful misery and melancholy.
But throughout the poem, it also seems like there's someone other than the Magus at work. If that sounds a little creepy, that's because it is. The words that come out of the Magus's mouth are almost too symbolically perfect, too ESP-like to really be his own. If we dig deep into the way in which the Magus's story is constructed, we stumble upon a ghost-speaker in the poem, who's wielding all that symbolic mumbo jumbo with the utmost care.
So even though Eliot's writing a dramatic monologue here, he's not concealing himself very well in the persona. His incredible well-read-ness shines through all the time, putting words in the Magus's mouth that are symbolic of things and events that the Magus couldn't possibly know—the trial and death of Christ, the Lancelot Andrewes sermon, bits of the New Testament, and Shakespeare. So, although the speaker might walk like a Magus, he only half-talks like one. The other half is all super-bookish Eliot, a careful puppeteer.
While the general plot of this poem, more or less, is super-famous and not at all difficult to understand, the sheer depth of the symbolism makes it much trickier than you might think. In order to fully appreciate the piece, you've got to be able to recognize references to small bits of Shakespeare, seventeenth-century sermons, and very specific Bible passages. So while a rough grasp of the poem isn't all that difficult at all, truly reading it for all it's worth is no easy feat. Again, that's Eliot at his most Eliot: simple on the outside, insanely allusive and nuanced on the inside. He was never one for cake walks.
Once again, the late, great T.S. Eliot has created a persona through which to tell his tales. And while the Magus in "Journey" might not have been created from the ground up (like, say, a certain Mr. Prufrock), he's certainly given much more of a personality than the Bible affords the guy (the Magi are only mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and only relatively briefly). Eliot's mission was to make a multifaceted person out of this Biblical character, and he totally pulls it off. The Magus is miserable, nostalgic, hopeful, doubtful, resigned… we could go on, but suffice it to say he's got a full range of emotions in this depiction.
It's something that Eliot does particularly well—creating personae, that is. He certainly writes a lot of his poetry from his own point of view, but some of Eliot's most famous work concerns the stories of others. Whether he's doing it dramatic-monologue-style, or by taking on tons of different speakers, like in "The Waste Land", Eliot uses elaborate characterizations to make complicated commentary about human behavior, religion, modern life, and more.
And then there are those pesky allusions. Eliot just wouldn't be Eliot if he neglected to point to about ten different literary classics in as many lines. In this poem, he draws mainly on the Bible and a few other religious sources, but in other poems, he's been known to go totally nutso and draw from just about anything he can find.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is free verse. Eliot, after Walt Whitman and along with poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, was one of the pioneers of the kind of freewheeling lines that we associate with so much of contemporary poetry.
But! In the words of Robert Frost, "poetry without form is like playing tennis without a net," and for the Modernist poets, this certainly held true. So while there's no stanza pattern at work here, and the lines vary a bit in terms of length, let's take a closer look at rhythm. Sure, Eliot is playing pretty fast and loose with form here, but the ghost of metrical pattern is always lurking in his lines. And that means we should be keeping a weather eye (or ear) out for a sneaky little bugger called the iamb.
An iamb is just a set of two syllables in which the second one is stressed. Think "away," or "again," or "for real." An iambic phrase would go a like this: "the little fox was red." Now, "Journey of the Magi" is by no means entirely iambic. From what we can tell, Eliot's all over the place with his stress patterns. But the key here is that certain important bits of the poem are composed in loose iambs. Check it out:
We could do this with a couple of other rhythmic feet (like trochees, or anapests) as well. But the point is that the lines aren't entirely helter-skelter. Eliot's arranged them carefully to produce driving rhythms when he wants them, while still not sacrificing the common speech feel of the poem. So maybe free verse isn't so free after all.
Though talk of the temperature peters out by the time the poem winds to a close, weather is the star of the show in the first part of the Magus's story. And it's pretty miserable weather indeed—frigid and slushy (remember, it's nearly Christmas, in the most literal sense of the term). Then, the weather in the poem suddenly takes a turn for the better, or at least for the less frozen. This thawing motif, on a whole, is a kind of conceit, or extended metaphor, for the coming transformation of the world (well, some of it) brought by Jesus.
"Journey of the Magi" contains imagery of the Magis' homelands in both its opening and closing lines. And while the Bible (specifically the Gospel of Matthew, which is the only book that includes the story of the Magi) is vague about where these kings are actually from, our best guess at the moment is that they hailed from around present-day Yemen. In other words, they were from the desert, the land of eternal summer. So it's no wonder they're so nostalgic for it at the beginning of the poem. But by the end, a huge transformation has happened, and the Magi look back on their homes as long past their prime.
What we really mean here is "any place that's not the Magi's awesome palaces." The poem sets up a pretty stark contrast between the desert homeland of the kings and the villages closer to Bethlehem. The weird part? The villages are kind of awful, and Bethlehem isn't really much better. It's not like they arrive at the birthplace of Christ and suddenly everything is beautiful and mystical. It's actually quite the opposite. Which makes sense, if you think about it. For the Magi, who neither know very much about the newborn they're seeking nor how they really feel about him, these must seem like strange and forbidding places. We mean, where's the sherbet?
Ah, the Big Kahuna of symbolism in "Journey of the Magi," and it's all crammed into the middle stanza. The second bit of this poem can be interpreted as an allegory for a couple of different things in the Bible. And because it's so jam-packed, we're going to go through it with a fine-toothed comb here, Shmoopoets.
Nothing to see here, folks. Move right along. This is a poem about a baby born from a virgin, and we think that says it all.