Study Guide

Journey of the Magi Themes

  • Suffering

    As journey's go, the "Journey of the Magi" really blows. It begins and ends with suffering, and the Magi suffer a whole lot during the journey, too, what with all the bad weather and even worse people. But there's a bigger suffering going on here, too. There's the psychological suffering of the dying culture of the Magi, plus the physical and mental anguish we know this kid, Jesus, will experience as he grows up to become Christ. So what do we make of all this? We think Eliot's reminding us that a whole lot about spirituality and religion revolves around suffering, and that suffering often comes with religious transformation.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Does the beginning of the poem make you sympathize with the Magi? If so, how? If not, how come?
    2. Can you make a list of all of the things that could cause suffering in this poem? Is it a long list?
    3. Do you think the Magis' suffering is related to Jesus's suffering? How so, or why not?
    4. Why do you think the Magus says that he would "do it again" towards the end of the poem? Does that mean he's a man of faith, and that's why he's willing to endure all this hardship?

    Chew on This

    The physical suffering that the Magi go through in the first part of the poem is only a precursor to the horrible spiritual suffering they'll go through by the end.

    The Magis' despair at the end of the poem tells us that widespread spiritual change isn't necessarily good for everyone. Eliot is highlighting the awful awkwardness of religious rebirth.

  • Tradition and Customs

    The "Journey of the Magi" is chock full of traditions being challenged left and right. There's this strange sense of impending doom about the birth of Jesus, and the dawning knowledge that the old way of life for these Magi is long gone. You'd think that a poem about the birth of Jesus would be all kinds of happy about ushering in a new era of religious exaltation, but mostly this poem is moping about a long-dead past. Hey, it's Eliot. His glass was almost always half-empty. If not shattered altogether.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Can you piece together what kinds of traditions and customs the Magi had before beginning their journey to Bethlehem? What were their lives like? What do they stand to lose at the birth of Jesus?
    2. How do you imagine those customs changed after the birth, life, and death of Jesus?
    3. How do you think the Magus's reaction to losing his culture is related to his position of power?
    4. What do you think this poem says about Eliot's relationship to religious tradition? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    The replacement of the Magis' traditions and culture with those of Christianity is the perfect match for Eliot's conversion from spiritually loose Unitarianism to more conservative Anglicanism.

    Upon returning to their palaces, the Magis' customs are suddenly strange, and in mortal danger.

  • Fear

    There are two distinct layers of fear in "Journey of the Magi." First, there's the Magus-as-character fear – the kind that's pretty easy to identify by the end of the poem. And then there's the kind of fear that that first kind implies. Now before you go asking yourself what in the world Shmoop's babbling on about, allow us to explain: by making the Magus a character that's super wary of spiritual change, Eliot's secretly telling us about his own fears surrounding his recent religious conversion. After all, Eliot grew up with no real spiritual upbringing, and even though his conversion to Anglicanism was certainly his choice, that doesn't necessarily mean it was an easy one. Which is maybe why fear comes out with guns a-blazin' in this poem.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why do you think the Magi are so afraid of the birth of Jesus?
    2. Beyond fear of losing power, what other kinds of fear are present in this poem? How do they work together?
    3. When Eliot positions the Magi as scared of change, what effect does this characterization have on the poem?
    4. Who else do you think might be frightened by the coming of Jesus?

    Chew on This

    The Magis' fear in "Journey" is a specific and poignant example of our fear of the unknown. But that's all it is.

    A large part of the Magis' fear in "Journey" is directly tied to an impending loss of political power. They're just washed up old dictators, trying to stay relevant.

  • Death

    To the Magi, the loss of their traditions to impending Christianity is like staring both death and defeat in the face at once. Death doesn't make its real entrance until the end of "Journey of the Magi," but when it finally does sashay onto the scene, it puts all too fine a point on what the coming of Jesus means to the Magi and their people.

    Questions About Death

    1. How does the poem build up to explicit talk of death in the third stanza?
    2. Answer the Magus's question: do you think they were led all that way for Birth or for Death?
    3. How are birth and death conflated (i.e., made similar, or combined) in this poem?
    4. How are spiritual and literal death intertwined in this poem? Where in the poem do they seem particularly linked?

    Chew on This

    "Journey of the Magi" makes poignant commentary on the fact that Jesus was literally born to die. That's the real gist of the poem—not the Magis' long-lost way of life.

    The spiritual death of the Magus is horrific enough for him to wish for actual bodily death, too. It's extreme, but for him, it's the only solution.

  • Religion

    The birth of Jesus, the three kings, and Biblical allusions galore. "Journey of the Magi" has religion written all over it, and that's just the obvious stuff. Since the whole poem is about the coming of Christianity, every word is packed with religious meaning that can be picked apart with a fine-toothed comb. Allow Shmoop.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What do you think about Eliot's embellishment of a story from a sacred text? Does he pull it off? Is it okay for a poet to do something like that? 
    2. Do you think this poem is symbolic of Eliot's own conversion? How can you tell?
    3. Why does the religion of the Magis' people suddenly seem "alien" to them? Who's to blame? Could this maybe be a good thing?
    4. What do you think is the purpose of all the Biblically symbolic language in the second stanza? Why pack in so many allusions in such a tiny space?

    Chew on This

    The heavy symbolism in the second stanza of "Journey" lends the poem a sense that even the Magus is unaware of just how significant a journey he is making.

    The tone of "Journey of the Magi" shows us that religion is an intensely complicated, often painful, and sometimes even fatal process, not simply something that just exists.