Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi Study Guide

"Journey of the Magi" was the first poem that T.S. Eliot wrote after his baptism into the Anglican church on July 29, 1927. From that point on, almost everything he wrote propagated the Christian faith. This poem was first published in 1927 by his employer, the publisher Faber & Gwyer, in pamphlet format, as a Christmas gift for its clients. It was part of a collection of thirty-eight illustrated Christmas poems by English writers called the “Ariel Series” published between 1927 through 1931.

"Journey of the Magi" takes the form of a dramatic monologue—a speech in the voice of a particular character. Here it is a complaint in the voice of one of the Magi, the three kings who crossed the desert to honor the birth of Jesus. Eliot uses this figure as a persona for his own conversion experience, which is described in the poem as very difficult. The tone is dour and anti-climactic, an ironic way to describe a miracle. The Magi endure physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship before they reach the Judean valley. Once there, the poem becomes dense with religious symbolism and biblical allusions to the life of Christ. In the last stanza, the Magus, years later, looks back on the journey to assess its meaning. The central question of the poem asks: “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” This complex question acknowledges the paradox at the heart of Christianity: that Christ was born in order to die for humanity’s sins. It also relays why the journey is so existentially depressing for the Magi: the advent of Christianity means the death of the old Pagan ways of the world, and so the demise of the Magi’s culture and power. The Magus describes the alienating feeling of returning home knowing that everything has changed before the rest of the world knows it. He becomes suicidal: ready for his own death, Christ’s death, and the ushering in of the new Christian era.