Study Guide

Journey of the Magi Quotes

  • Suffering

    "A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year
    For the journey, and such a long journey:
    The ways deep and the weather sharp,
    The very dead of winter." (1-5)

    These opening lines, from Lancelot Andrewes's 1622 Nativity sermon, give us the setting of the first part of the poem, and it's pretty grim. Since the Magi are coming from the desert and are entirely unaccustomed to anything cold, the change of climate = physical misery. And this present suffering only gets worse later when it finally dawns on them that Jesus's birth will bring an end to their way of life.

    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:
    A hard time we had of it. (12-16)

    This passage is a long list of the things that caused physical suffering on the journey itself. The anaphora at the beginning gives the passage a kind of relentless feel, like "just when you think it couldn't get any worse, it did. And then it got even worse, thanks for asking." Not only is the help grumpy, but they can't even get warm, and everywhere they go, people are just the worst.

    With the voices singing in our ears, saying
    That this was all folly. (19-20)

    At last, the mental discomfort begins to rear its ugly head. All the time that the Magi are journeying towards Bethlehem, they're experiencing considerable inconvenience, mainly in terms of bodily comfort. But now we're introduced to another thing altogether—doubt. The "voices singing in our ears" bit is a direct reference to the fact that before the journey even began, they had other voices singing at them—those of the angels sent down by God to tell them to go look for the baby Jesus. But these new voices are considerably more human, and it was probably pretty miserable to constantly have the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't going to end well.

    But had thought they were different; this Birth was
    Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. (38-39)

    Far from being a cause for celebration (as the Bible very clearly depicts it), Jesus's birth is "hard and bitter agony" for the Magi. Um, awkward. Because, as we've talked about a bit already, with the literal birth comes a metaphorical birth (of Christianity) and a metaphorical death (of pretty much everything the Magi are used to). We'll get to the death part in a bit, but for now what's important is that the witnessing of the birth of Jesus brings it all home for the Magi, who suddenly realize the full implications of the event.

    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, (40-41)

    To continue in the vein of post-birth-of-Jesus suffering, this passage has the Magi back in their palaces, surveying what they know will soon be a lost way of life. Upon seeing the actual baby, they totally get it. After all, seeing is believing. All that physical discomfort they experienced on the journey fades into the background, only to be replaced by sheer mental anguish. Welcome to the wonderful world, baby Jesus?

  • Tradition and Customs

    There were times we regretted
    The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
    And the silken girls bringing sherbet. (8-10)

    This passage is the first hint of where the Magi are coming from—both literally and figuratively, if you know what we mean. By this point in the poem we already know that everyone's trudging through the cold, which sounds kind of unpleasant on its own. But then we realize just how big of a contrast it is to where the Magi are from. The imagery here is overtly luxurious, with summer palaces (implying that there are other seasonal palaces—as if one palace weren't enough!) and lush gardens (the "terraces") and servant girls clad in expensive silks bringing tasty treats. In other words, the lives of the Magi are described as incredibly decadent.

    Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
    And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, (11-12)

    When all this good timin' is taken away, we see the slightly seedier underbelly of this kind of lifestyle. Luxury comes with a price and that price is spoiled people. Faced with the hardships of the journey, the camel men begin to behave rather badly, and wish for the things that remind them of home. Except in this case, it's not lovely palaces and ice cream, it's "liquor and women"—two decidedly less refined things to crave. In fact, their behavior sounds a lot like the kind of behavior that Jesus's coming is supposed to fix—the cursing, the sloth, the lust. Hey, we just named three of the Deadly Sins. No coincidence there.

    And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. (28)

    The Bible passage to which this quote refers (Matthew 9:16, if you're interested) tells of Jesus's instructions to put new wine into new wine-skins. Often this is interpreted as a kind of parable for the new religion—that the "old wine-skins" ought to be tossed out, and room made for the "new wine" (Christianity). If you want to get specific, the empty wine-skin in this passage, then, can be interpreted as the Magis' customs and traditions and religions, empty and in need of replacing.

    Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods. (39-42)

    In this passage at the end of the poem, the Magis' faith in their customs has been shaken to the point of being dismantled. They arrive back at their palaces, these places in which they were previously safe and secure, and it's as though they no longer recognize anything. They had grown so accustomed to being in power, and to the ways of their people, that a sudden onslaught of change is nearly unfathomable to the Magi. Suddenly their people look "alien," their gods idols to which they cling for a false sense of security. The Magi have fully realized, in other words, the scale of the coming change and their lack of place in it.

  • Fear

    There were times we regretted
    The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, (8-9)

    When we're exploring the theme of fear and/or anxiety, the key word in this passage becomes the word "regretted." Now, at first it might not seem like regret and fear really have much to do with one another. But in the case of the Magi and their difficult journey, suddenly their lavish upbringing does in fact become a source of fear. The regret, in this case, is a kind of nervousness, almost as if the Magi are suddenly realizing that their unaccustomed-ness could actually get them killed out here in cold and unfamiliar territory. Yikes.

    And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
    And the villages dirty, and charging high prices: (14-15)

    The Magi, who as we've noted are used to far cushier surroundings, suddenly find themselves traveling through country that is just plain unfriendly. Considering that the reason they even set out on this journey is because they were all but commanded to by a host of angels, this horrible slog is probably not at all what they expected. And, often, the unexpected causes fear.

    With the voices singing in our ears, saying
    That this was all folly. (19-20)

    Even though the Magi had received instructions from on high (literally), something inside was telling them that this might all just be a giant cosmic joke. And hey, we've all been there. This doubt could stem from two kinds of fear, really: the fear that it was in fact all folly, and that they'd made the journey for nothing, or more likely, the fear that it wasn't folly at all, and that they're about to witness the end of their culture as they knew it. The second kind is harder to articulate, which is probably why the first is there instead. The second is implied.

    This: were we led all that way for
    Birth or Death? (35-36)

    The overarching fear of "Journey of the Magi" is expressed in this single question. How's that for summing things up? By the time the Magus expresses this question, it has become rhetorical because he already knows that the answer is "both." But the question itself illustrates the primary source of trepidation in this poem, which is the "what will become of me?" fear that the Magi experience upon realizing that the baby in the manger is, in fact, going to become a great Savior. There's no mention of how they know this, but their reaction makes it pretty clear that they've grasped the significance of the event. And it's terrifying.

  • Death

    And three trees on the low sky,
    And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. (24-25)

    The three trees, as crosses, signal the coming crucifixion of Jesus. The white horse is the apocalyptic white horse of conquest, which along with three other horses comes down from heaven to cleanse the earth of Satan and his minions. So while there is no overt death in the poem just yet, these lines are indicative of both mortality in the literal sense (bodily death) and in the metaphorical sense (conquest; death of a culture).

    And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
    Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. (30-31)

    Sure, these lines don't look like they have a whole lot to do with death or defeat on the surface. But it's an Eliot poem, so let's look closer. If we think about the ways in which "satisfactory" is used in the Anglican Articles, we see that this passage can be viewed as yet another reference to impending doom for the Magis' religion. Jesus was sent down as a mortal to satisfy the debt of the world's sins. Sins, it might be noted, that the Magis' culture and people were committing daily. More impending spiritual death.

    There was a Birth, certainly,
    We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
    But had thought they were different; (36-38)

    Here's where things take a turn for the literal. In this chilling passage, the Magus expresses his certainty that Jesus was definitely born, but he then turns right around and conflates Jesus's birth with death itself. He doesn't come right out and say it, though the implication of "had thought they were different" is that upon witnessing the birth of Jesus, the Magus realized that he was also witnessing the death of his own ways, and, if we stretch, his own physical death to come. Yeah, that's not the version of the Nativity we're used to.

    I should be glad of another death. (43)

    The final line of the poem takes the previous quote and pushes it further into the literal. At the end of the day, the realization of what Jesus's birth really means is too much for the narrator to take. Resigned to defeat, he simply wishes for his own death, knowing that his whole existence is about to crumble around him anyway. The poem thus ends with the ultimate expression of resignation. Rather than being angry, or fearful, the Magus simply gives up, preferring to have his own existence end than to witness the world that he knows so well change so drastically.

  • Religion

    Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
    Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; (21-22)

    This passage could be a reference to the effect of Christianity on the world (as told by Christians, of course). The Magi, having tramped through the awful cold and slush of winter, suddenly find themselves in an altogether more pleasant climate (though still not as hot as where they've come from—not Hellishly hot, in other words, hint hint). It smells of vegetation, which signals fertility and food, which is a relief to the Magi for sure. The whole thing is a bit odd though, because of what Christianity will mean to the Magi by the end of the poem. But the whole point of the piece is that religion is mighty complicated, so we're pretty sure that contradiction isn't a mistake.

    Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, (27)

    This reference to not only Judas's betrayal but also to the Romans' divvying up of Jesus's clothes could be looked at as emblematic of religion because of the way in which it contains both sin and salvation. After all, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, according to Christian belief, are what will save us all.

    Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. (31)

    If we look at this quote as a prophecy entirely fulfilled—the Magi followed the star, they listened to the angels, and everything went according to plan—then the "you may say" part may well be the Magus's first realization that the prophecy doesn't include his own salvation. So while the prophecy has been satisfied, and everything should be in its right place, nothing could be further from the truth for the Magi. So you may say, but the Magi sure don't.

    This: were we led all the way for
    Birth or Death? (35-36)

    While widespread religious change may bring about good things (for all this skepticism, according to the Bible, Jesus did some pretty awesome stuff), the process can be painful, messy, and even slightly reminiscent of death itself. You have to give up a lot in order to gain a lot, in other words.

    With an alien people clutching their gods. (42)

    The second-to-last line of this poem is a powerful image of the Magis' people, suddenly transformed into heathens "clutching" (what a word!) at their soon-to-be-false idols. Thus the last real image we get of anything in this poem is a bunch of people desperately hanging on to a way of life that's about to be, well, kaput. As if that weren't enough, the guy who's going to do the transforming is the infant to which the leader of these very people just went to pay tribute! So this is yet another image that illustrates that while Christianity has proven to be a very good thing to a great many people, the process by which it came to be was not all rainbows and sunshine for the folks on the ground.