Journey Of The Magi Essay, Research Paper
T.S. Eliot?s Journey of the Magi
This Christmas poem is about the Epiphany and was created the very year of Eliot?s conversion to Christianity (Fleisner, 66). Therefore the theme of religion is an important one if we are to analyse the poem correctly. In the book of Ephesians in the Bible, Paul describes the rebirth of the world upon Christ?s death, emphasising the Ephesians? new life (2:4-5). This theme of death and rebirth is present in the poem Journey of the Magi, which, I will argue, is structurally and internally divided into three stages; corresponding to the Sacrament of Penance: contrition (guilt), confession and satisfaction.
To understand this poem, one has to understand the impact that Christ had on the World. At the time of his birth, however, the known world was not stable; people worshipped many gods, and we get a full description of the way life was by the Magus who narrates his story of their journey to Bethlehem to witness the end of an era and the birth of a new one.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, "contrition is a penitent?s spiritual sorrow for the sins he has committed, and it necessarily includes hatred for such sins, as well as the determination to avoid them in the future." In the first stanza, this "spiritual sorrow" is apparent by the contrast Eliot uses, of the Magi?s difficult journey. In fact, the central focus of criticism has been on the journey; the "cold coming" (line 1) during "the worst time of the year" (line 2), emphasising the climatic statement of the stanza: "A hard time we had of it" (line 16). The Magus talks of their sorrowful past life of ease, the times they "regretted?the silken girls bringing sherbet" (lines 8-10), and in the same way that they are ?physically? moving towards Christ, they feel they are progressing spiritually, putting a personal ban on the sinful lives they have had. This act of contrition seems genuine because they are pressured by the "voices singing in [their] ears, saying/ That this was all folly" (lines 19-20). These are the voices of the camel men, the hostile cities and the unfriendly towns, voices that tempt the wise men to cease their foolish journey and fall, once again, into spiritual degeneration. In the end, the difficulty of the journey comes to remind the Magi of their previous life and thus urges them forward.
The second stanza moves into the third stage in the Sacrament: satisfaction, which is the obligatory penance that follows the confession of sins. In keeping with the first stanza which elaborates the difficulties of the journey, Eliot does not depict the primary aspect of satisfaction (the fulfilment of penance) in stanza two, but rather the secondary aspect, which, according to the Oxford Bible Dictionary is a "medicinal purpose?[assisting] the penitent to resist relapse into the same kind of sin in the future." Thus, after their "hard time," the Magi arrive at dawn in a "temperate valley,/ Wet" and "smelling of vegetation" (lines 21-22), symbolic of the new life attained from their penance. Apart from this, it is interesting to mention Eliot?s wonderful imagery of the "three trees on the low sky," (line24) not only representing the Magi, but also the three crosses of the Crucifixion, as line 27 suggests, of the Roman soldiers dicing for Jesus? robe and the "old white horse," (line 25) galloping madly away, could represent Judas, and the silver he was paid for betraying Jesus. However, the white horse could subsequently be associated with death, evoking images of the Crucifixion and the great disaster that event was for Jesus? followers.
The second stage of the Sacrament, the actual confession, takes place in the final stanza when the narrator starts his confession to the addressee, who may well be taken as St. Mathew, (this is the view of a substantial number of scholars) by saying "?set down/This set down/This?" (lines 33-35). In the Oxford Dictionary, confession is described as "the manifestation of one?s sins to an authorised priest for the purpose of obtaining God?s forgiveness." The form that the speaker?s confession takes is at first a question, which demonstrates his lack of understanding the significance of Christ?s birth: "were we led all that way for/ Birth or Death" (lines 35-36). The confession concludes, however, earnestly: "this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death" (lines 38-39). Not only does the speaker confess to not fully comprehending the significance of the event, he also admits a kind of reluctance to believe that anything at all significant did occur; the speaker says: "I had seen a birth and death, / But had thought they were different" (lines 37-38), suggesting that the birth that they had travelled so far to witness was more like an end than a beginning.
In this light, we can see Eliot?s embodiment of the three stages of the Sacrament, but we might ask why he rearranged the order of these stages. Instead of beginning with contrition and ending in satisfaction, (an order which might indicate fulfilment of the Sacrament and an end to the process of perfection) Eliot opens with contrition in stanza one, moves on to satisfaction in stanza two, and then concludes with confession in the third stanza, suggesting that the soul, in its journey towards Christ and heavenly perfection, (like the Magi?s journey) can never rest in the certainty of perfection but must be continually engaged in the process of becoming perfect. Not until death can the process come to a close ? not until death can true and complete satisfaction be attained, for in life one must constantly be compensating for human weaknesses. Eliot re-emphasises this conclusion in the final four lines of the poem:
"We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death." (Lines 40-43)
The Magi have returned to their old estates, the "summer palaces" of the first stanza that they have come to regret, but are "no longer at ease." This phrase has a double meaning: first, that the Magi do not take pleasure in the comforts of their old life, that they do not fall back into their old sinful ways; and, second, that the Magi no longer blend with their people, who are now alien to them, "?clutching their gods."
The final sentence also multiplies in meaning, reiterating the theme of the poem that the search for perfection is a process only ending in death. On one level, the speaker wishes for his own death in order to end this tiring process. On another, higher level, the speaker wishes for the death of Christ, for, ultimately, it is in Christ?s death that true satisfaction can occur. Eliot also emphasises the speaker?s doubt over the Death and Rebirth in the poem, using "should," which suggests both that he indeed "wants" another death in order to bring about spiritual renewal and that he "ought" to be happy with another death, but is not certain that he would be happy after his experience with the first death.
To conclude, the poem Journey of the Magi, touches on the journey of human spirit and their endeavour for perfection. It delivers a message: that we are all involved in the process of perfection of self, and sombrely, one can only reach this place of utter satisfaction through death.