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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.