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T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi, an interpretation.

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Journey of the Magi

an interpretation
by Jan van der Vlies

The poem Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot, tells the story of the journey which the three Magi undertook when they followed the star that led them the cradle of Jesus Christ. It is narrated by one of the Magi. In an interior monologue the old Magus not only makes us part of all the hardships he and his fellow travellers met, but also do we get to know his feelings. Feelings about life and death and spirituality.
The poem consists of three parts, and every part describes a different part of the journey.
Part 1, lines 1-20 describe the hardest part of the journey;
Part 2, lines 21-31 describe the final part of the journey and the arrival at their destination;
Part 3, lines 32-48 describe how the Magus, in old age, looks back on everything that happened a long time ago.

Recalling the story of the Magi, as told in the Gospel of St. Matthew, ch.2, one is inclined to believe that it was a pleasant journey. According to the legend the Magi had seen a new star, which they believed to indicate the birth of a royal child. However, the first twenty lines of the poem give us quite another idea. The narrator leaves no doubt about it:

´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.´
In one single sentence the old Magus depicts a situation which can only be interpreted in one way: It was a rough journey! Rough, not only because of the cold, but also because of the seeming absence of any form of life. It was ´the very dead of winter´, and everything seemed to be dead. We do not read about a group of joyful people coming to see a mother with a new-born child, but instead we read about a caravan of grumbling men, plodding along impassable roads, often wondering what they are doing. But, there is something that makes them go on, despite the hardships, despite the unwilling beasts of burden and the servants running away. There is a deeper motivation, an inner feeling telling them to fulfill this journey.

The second part immediately sets a totally different tone:

´ Then at dawn we came to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation:
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, .....´

The new morning, the wet and temperate valley, the smells of the vegetation, the beating of the mill are symbols of life. The Magi have come down to a place where it is possible to live and work. A hopeful stage in the journey. However, where there is life, there is death. Death is indicated by the ´three trees on the low sky´ (were they used to make the crosses from?), ´And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow´ (the old white horse is a Bhuddist symbol, indicating the end of the world). A few lines further on we read ´Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver´ (Here is a reference to the soldiers dicing for the pieces of silver Judas has thrown away after hearing Jesus' death sentence.)
After having resisted the inner voices ´saying that this was all folly´ the three wise men and their companions continue their journey which will finally lead them to the Child. Where the first part of the poem has an atmosphere of coldness and death, the second part is lively and hopeful.
On this new day they will reach their destination, and see the new-born Child. That evening the Magi arrive at the place and with an aloof sobriety the narrator continues saying that ´it was (...) satisfactory.´

The third part of the poem contains a contemplation ´All this was a long time ago, I remember.´ It doesn't matter how long ago it was, 33 years or 2,000 years, it really doesn't matter: ´I would do it again´, the old man says. He was moved by all that had happened, the things he had heard, and especially everything he had seen. He openly wonders what had urged him to undertake the journey. ´Birth or Death.´ This Birth he had seen implied Death. By being born Jesus chose to die. By accepting Christ's Birth, the Magus also accepts Christ's death, and his own. His old life dies, and by accepting the Birth he is born again. When the Magi returned to their Kingdoms, they didn't feel at ease. They saw people living in a way they used to live. The Magi had changed. They had witnessed Birth, which had spiritually changed them.
In the final sentence the narrator indicates that he ´would be glad of another death,´ not spiritually like the first time, but physically. His physical death would unite him once more with Christ.
The poem also shows a striking absence of elements which are written in the story according to St.Matthew. There is no mentioning of a star that guided the Magi. No external motivation. They felt an intrinsic passion to look for the Child. This passion proved to be so strong that all the hardships could be endured.
There is no mentioning of the Magi bringing any of the expensive gifts, myrrh, incense and gold. From this text we may easily assume that they came empty handed. The old Magus doesn't mention them because material gifts are not important at all. The story is not about a material sacrifice, but about a spiritual one. The greatest gift the Child could be offered was not a bag full of gold, myrrh and incense, but the narrator sacrifycing himself. He believes in Jesus as God's son. He must believe what he saw. He himself had found Christ and in his own way. His old life has ended. He has alienated from his own people, who clutch their gods. He looks forward to dying again and living eternally with Christ.

©J.W.O. van der Vlies, 29-12-99 12:17:32