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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Journey of the Magi by T.S Eliot

Literary Analysis (Summary)
This poem, written by T.S Eliot, is a travelogue. It is an account of the three wise men (biblical magi) from the east, who visits Jesus Christ in Chapter 2 of the gospel of Matthew, shortly after his birth. The bible details how the magi are guided by the Stars of Bethlehem from the east to Jerusalem. The star has informed them of the birth of Jesus Christ. Consequently, they set on a journey to find the messiah and King of Judea and to present him with their gifts.

The poem, a dramatic monologue entwisted in biblical allusion, is an account of the tempestuous journey from the point of view of one of the magi. It narrates the perilous experience encountered by the three wise men in the search of the birth place of baby Jesus.

However, the poem is narrated in three main divisions, each division dealing with a different aspect of the journey. The poem begins with a quotation about a cold and hazardous journey embarked upon during “the very dead of winter” at “the worst time of the year”. This gives us the detail of the setting of the poem. “The ways deep, and the weather sharp”

Being a long journey, the “sore-footed” camels are tired of going farther. They revolt and decide to lie “down in the melting snow”. Even the magus narrating the poem seems to be regretting the distressful journey that appears to have no end. Quite often, they remember their comfortable homes, the “summer palaces on slopes” and the “terraces” they have left behind. They also remember the smooth and beautiful girls back home who serve them with sherbet, a cold drink of watered and diluted fruit juice. The “silken girls” make life enjoyable coupled with the merriment in their comfortable homes. 

These are, however, conspicuously lacking in their journey. Aside the pessimism and the absolute regret of the magi, the camel men too are sick of the journey. They are also facing difficulties in the journey, riding on sore-footed camels that have become unruly, “The camel men cursing and grumbling.” There’s no fire to keep them warm with the coldness of the winter. Thus, they prefer to run back home to “their liquor and women”. Worse still, the cities are hostile while the natives of the towns are unfriendly. The villages they pass through are dirty. Yet, they charge exorbitant prices for their products and services. As a result, the magi cannot get a good accommodation. They sleep “in snatches” (brief period when it is necessary) and find it safe to travel at night. 

The narrator then confesses, “A hard time we had of it.” As they progress, they begin to doubt “with the voices singing in our ears, saying” that the whole journey may be a wasteful adventure, perhaps a worthless venture.

There and then, they arrive in Bethlehem, “a temperate valley” that is “smelling of vegetation”. This gives them hope that their long suffering has come to an end. Still, the magus-narrator seems to foreshadow the death of the new born baby. He talks about “a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.”  From there, the speaker alludes to the crucifixion of Christ on the cross with the two thieves on his sides, “three trees on the low sky”, while the symbolic “old white horse” of the apocalypse dashes out.

At the tavern, the speaker alludes to the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot being offered “pieces of silver”. Although they are already in Bethlehem, they cannot get the precise location of the birth of Jesus from the natives as they seem to be obsessed with drinking and merriment and absolutely unaware of the birth of the messiah in their town. They continue until they arrive at a place in the evening. A place they never expected to be the birthplace of the saviour of the world and the king of Jews. It is a manger!

Having seen the new born baby, they forget the hardship they have passed through and conclude that they would love to embark on such a journey again. Still, they ruminate on the death-like journey just to see someone’s birth. “This: were we led all that way for birth or death.”

The concluding part of the poem is more philosophical as it exposes the major preoccupation of the poem. The magi have witnessed the birth of Christ and it has put a death to their old life. “…and no doubt. I had seen birth and death”; “this birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death”. Before that journey, the magi were pagans. Seeing Christ has transformed their lives. Consequently, they come across “our death” to their old life. Symbolically, this poem depicts the journey of a soul in search of salvation and a journey from paganism to Christianity.

After presenting their gifts to Jesus, they return to their homeland where they no longer feel at ease “in the old dispensation”. The old dispensation is their former way of life where they drink alcohols and womanise. In fact, with their new change of life, they now see their very own as “alien people”. They are “no longer at ease” with “their gods” having seen the messiah whose birth has announced the death of their worldly ways. Not minding the pains and travails they have passed through in course of their journey to find Christ, the speaker concludes, “I should be glad for another death.”

The search for salvation
The painful and tempestuous journey of life
The gains of patience
Worldly pleasures are ephemeral
The death of old life and the beginning of a new life

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