Journey of the Magi Summary
"Journey of the Magi" opens with a quote about a journey, and it's a cold and difficult one. From the title of the poem, we can guess that this is the journey of the Three Kings (or Three Wise Men, or Magi) to the birthplace of Jesus. After the opening quote, the poem elaborates on the difficulties of travel, including grumpy camels, wishing for home (home being warm, palatial, and full of girls and servants), fires going out, unfriendly and expensive towns, and a distinct lack of places to sleep. The speaker notes that the Magi preferred to just travel all night for these reasons, and that through their travels, a little voice in their heads kept suggesting that maybe this whole thing was all for nothing.
Then, the narrator goes on to tell of the Magi's arrival in Bethlehem, a place he describes as "a temperate valley" (21). They still can't find any info about where they were supposed to go from the villagers, however, so they eventually have to find the stable in which they were to witness the birth of the baby Jesus. The trio arrives just in time.
The last part of the poem is more blatantly the Magus reminiscing about the story ("all this was a long time ago, I remember" ), and in his recollection he seems to be doubtful about whether or not the birth was a good or a bad thing, replacing as it would his own religion and culture. In fact, at the end of the poem he seems to regard it as a bad thing indeed, with the Magus wishing for his own death alongside the death of his peoples' old religion and ways.
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
- Bizarre. The opening lines are in quotes, as though the speaker of the poem is actually quoting someone else. Why would this be so?
- A little Googling and, lo and behold, these opening lines are a quote. From a really old (1622) Nativity sermon by one Lancelot Andrewes.
- Lancelot Andrewes, as it turns out, was a prominent scholar and clergyman in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, respectively. Andrewes oversaw the translation of the King James Bible (which is still, today, one of the most popular translations of the book), and was famous for his sermons.
- Stuff on Early Modern preachers aside, these lines, along with the title, set up for us what this poem is going to be about—that is, the Magis' trek to Bethlehem, where Jesus is about to be born.
- The implication is that they're coming from a ways away (the Magi, as far as we can tell, are probably from around Persia, pretty far east of present-day Israel), and that the weather is particularly nasty because they're making this important journey in the dead of winter. Christmas? Well that's December 25.
- This makes sense.
- A note on this poem's somewhat complicated narrative technique before we get any further: as the scholar Daniel Harris has noted, the voice here is referring to something that he can't possibly know about. How could a Magus, presumably traveling in the year one, know to quote a sermon from the year 1622?
- This kind of thing keeps happening throughout the poem. The New Testament, which is written way after the Magi die, is referenced a few times, as is Christ's death. We call this technique anachronism.
- Harris notes that this broadens the scope of the poem-as-narration, i.e., that it's told by a Magus, sure, but there's also something beyond the Magus that is also telling the story, a ghostly present-figure, who can quote a sermon from 1622. We'll go ahead and agree with him because we like the creepiness of that theory, and also the ways in which it expands the possibilities of the poem.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
- Now we've got just the voice of the Magus, telling us more specifically about the hardships of their journey.
- First things first: the mode of transportation is a little grumpy. The camels are "galled," which can mean annoyed or provoked, or it can mean that they're chafing under their saddles.
- They're so grumpily uncomfortable that they're "refractory" which means they just do the camel-equivalent of raising a white flag. They sit down in the snow (remember, it's Christmas Eve) and refuse to go any farther.
- The narrator goes on to tell us about where they've come from—"summer palaces," on (presumably lush and green) hillsides, with servant girls "bringing sherbet" (an Iranian drink).
- The gist here is that the Magi lead pretty cushy lives when they're not busy trekking through the countryside in the middle of winter looking for a baby who might be everyone's savior.
- But what's with the "regret?" Think of it this way: if you decide to run a marathon, but then sit around and maybe walk a few miles a day in order to train for that marathon, you're sure going to regret that laziness, and your lack of training on the day of the race.
- Not that the Magi knew that they were going to be called upon to find the birthplace of Christ and could "train" accordingly. But all the same, they're suffering in the cold, and looking back on it, maybe all that luxury was a little excessive. They might have been a little better prepared for this kind of thing—you know, a little manlier about it.
- But regret can also just refer to grief about something that's lost. So maybe they're just grieving about the lack of sherbet and hot chicks on the road. To which we say: suck it up, Magi. You've got a ways to go.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
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:
- More hardship. Now the guys that were supposed to be handling the camels are getting grumpy, too, to the point where in some cases they're just abandoning the Magi altogether.
- The camel men who remain are complaining that they'd really like a drink and a girl.
- Plus the nights are so cold and damp that they can't even keep a fire going, and they're really only trying to keep a fire going because there's no room at the inn. (Hey! That sounds familiar, and it should, because that's why Jesus is being born in a manger. Joseph and Mary were turned away from every inn in Bethlehem. There's that shadowy author-voice again, making allusions to things that are outside the Magus's knowledge.)
- And even if there were room at the inn, it would probably be kind of awful anyways, because the cities nearby are downright "hostile" (think mean on steroids), and the towns aren't quite hostile but they're not really very nice either, and the villages are just filthy and everyone charges too much.
- Overall? This journey is a boatload of not-very-much-fun-at-ALL-thank-you.
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
- In a slight echo of the first line, the narrator reiterates that all this describing he's just done is, in fact, illustrative of a pretty awful time for all.
- As if to put a point on the subject, we then find out that at the end of the day (figuratively and literally speaking, we suppose), the Magi and their crew decide simply to travel the whole night. They only pause to sleep when absolutely necessary, rather than drag out their journey any longer than they absolutely have to.
- In the meantime, throughout all of this hardship, there's the Magi-equivalent of "the little voice inside my head"—think those angels and devils that pop up on cartoons' shoulders and whisper contradictory things while the character is trying to make a decision.
- This time, though, it's just one voice, a voice that's trying to tell them "that this was all folly," meaning a giant mistake, or a stupid idea.
- The word "this," though, seems a little vague at first look. We're led to ask, "what was all folly?"
- Presumably, we can figure that "this" refers to the journey itself, that traveling all this way was a mistake. This would seem to imply, then, that the Magi doubt whether or not there actually is some stable that contains a manger that happens to be housing the savior of the free and not-free world. (Put that way, who could blame them for being skeptical?)
- So really, when you look at it, the voice at the end of this stanza really is like the little devil on the cartoon shoulder, because it contradicts the voice of an actual (according to the Bible) angel that had, days prior, told them to go and follow a star in the sky and bring gifts to a baby savior who would be born in a barn in Bethlehem. Again, put this way, the doubting voice sounds like it's actually the one offering reason. But the Magi push on, just in case.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
- After the Magi have pushed on miserably all night, they end up at "a temperate valley." The word temperate in this case means mild, climate-wise. It's a welcome contrast to the wintry weather that the Magi have just plodded through to get there.
- The whole "smelling of vegetation" thing further enhances the decidedly non-winter atmosphere. It's like the seasons have suddenly changed.
- Wait a minute. That doesn't really happen in real life. Not if you're traveling by camel anyway. So what's going on here? It seems like maybe, just maybe, this could be symbolic for something—the coming of the baby Jesus, perhaps? Something like salvation? That could certainly be depicted as a sudden movement from winter to spring.
- So there's that shadowy other-narrator-guy again, speaking through the Magus in such a way that we're all "Hey! Symbolism!" even though the Magus himself sure doesn't know he's being symbolic.
- The passage continues to elaborate upon the mild surroundings of the area (presumably Bethlehem's general vicinity) before them. It's got a running stream (so it's not frozen), and it's civilized (hence the water mill). All in all? Not too shabby.
- The last line of this passage is a little weird, though. Why only three trees on the horizon? If this is such a lush valley, the singling-out of three particular trees seems a little odd.
- Unless, that is, we return to our trusty Bible, and recall that, when Jesus was crucified, he wasn't the only one receiving capital punishment. There were two thieves flanking him. That's right – there were three crosses on that hill.
- Of course, this is yet another image that projects way into the future. The Magus, in his observation as a character, technically could have no way of knowing that the baby he was about to go see would be crucified thirty-three years later. But Eliot does—and it's Eliot that's writing the Magus's monologue. The dual-narrator surfaces again. And he's going to stay with us for the rest of this stanza.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
- The last observation of the valley that we get before the Magi head down into the town itself is this "old white horse."
- Since we're in symbolism mode, we'll take a few stabs at what this might mean (we'll go into way more detail in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" section, so head over there if you want the whole enchilada).
- The adjectives "old" and "white" sound a little like they might symbolize the conventional Christian God—you know, the ancient dude with the flowing white beard and the white robes.
- But what about the "horse" part? God's never depicted as a horse, as far as we know. Are there any Biblical horses, in general?
- In fact, there are, but they're decidedly less friendly than an old man in a robe. The most famous horses in the Bible are probably the four horses of the Apocalypse, that come down to cleanse the Earth of sinners in Revelation (which is the wackiest and scariest part of the Bible, by the way).
- So we have a conventional, gentle image of God combined with an animal that, in the Bible, wreaks havoc on humanity. Hmm. That's new.
- Keep in mind, though, that the horse is running "away" from the scene. This detail could be significant. Maybe it's God, having bestowed his son upon the earth, retreating for a while. And maybe the apocalyptic horse is being driven away for the time being. Maybe it's Gandalf and Shadowfax. Maybe not.
- Back to the poem. The Magi come to a tavern (which usually doubled as inns in those days), where they see a few guys gambling over some dice.
- They may well be a little tipsy, too, because there's mention of "empty wine-skins." In this case, a "wine-skin" is a bag used way back in the day to hold wine.
- It was, ickily enough, usually made out of the stomach or skin of a goat or cow. Hence the "skin" part.
- We've also got some more sneaky religious allusions at work here.
- First, there's that word lintel, which alludes to the story of Passover from Exodus 12, in which God instructed the Israelites to splash blood over their doors (on the lintel) to protect their first born children.
- Then we've got those six pieces of silver to deal with. This just might be an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus.
- Oh, Eliot. You're almost too clever for your own good, packing all that religion into these few lines.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
- The first part of this passage seems to indicate that the Magi asked the guys in the doorway whether or not they knew of the location of the stable where Jesus was to be born.
- And—surprise, surprise—it turns out the drunks at the local watering hole don't have a clue. So the Magi soldier on.
- It takes them all day to get to the stable. Apparently the inn wasn't in Bethlehem at all.
- Notice how the narrator never says the word "stable" or "manger" or "barn" or anything else that would indicate what kind of place they were trying to find.
- It's as though the narrator simply assumes that his audience will know what the Magi have been searching for (which—let's face it—we do).
- Apparently they arrive just in the nick of time, too, though we're not yet sure as to whether this means just before the birth or just after it.
- So they've found the place, they've arrived. And then the Magus-narrator says something incredibly peculiar: "it was (you may say) satisfactory."
- What on earth does this mean? The parenthetical aside almost makes the Magus sound a little snarky, like "yeah, it was a barn, whatever," which seems strange, given the fact that the Magi are well aware that they're headed to see the birth of a savior (though a savior of what kind, they're not sure). We mean, shouldn't that be kind of a big deal?
- So you'd think that finding a baby in a manger wouldn't prompt something more along the lines of "spectacular!" than "satisfactory." Maybe the Magus is just grateful that the baby's alive, that the barn was "satisfactory" enough to ensure at least that much.
- But again, it's Eliot, and we're thinking there's more to it than that. For more Biblical digging, see "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay." We won't disappoint.
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.