"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.