The title of the poem refers to a “journey.” This word means an act of traveling from one place to another, but also, in a metaphorical sense, the long and often difficult process of personal change and development.
"Journey of the Magi" begins with a quotation from a Christmas sermon, which establishes the initial choral voice of the poem: the Persian kings who crossed the desert in winter to honor the birth of the baby Jesus. In the quotation, the magi, speaking in a plural "we," describe how the journey was difficult for them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This quotation leads into a longer description of the difficulties of the journey.
The second stanza begins with a new dramatic beat: The dark night of the soul has passed, and it is now the dawn of a new day, literally and spiritually. The Magi descend into the fertile Judean valley. This stanza is full of Biblical allusions. The Magi find the manger where Jesus was born.
The third stanza switches to the voice of a singular Magus, who is reminiscing about the journey. (In retrospect, this could mean that the entire poem was written from a first-person perspective, but there was no way to know that before this point). He evaluates the experience, deciding that he “would do it again,” but then wonders at the paradox that the birth of Jesus was also a death. This death refers to both the death of Christ and the death of the old religious order, including the magical power of the Magus. He ends the poem wishing for another death, which represents both suicidal despair and an anticipation of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, ushering in a new Christian era.
The "journey" of the title describes the literal and mythic journey of the Magi across the desert to bring gifts to Jesus, the Christian messiah. It also describes the Magi’s internal journey from pagan to Christian. The Magus acts as a persona for Eliot, who went through his own conversion from agnostic to Anglican. From his point of view as a faithful Christian, the journey also represents the drastic change that the world undergoes at the birth of Jesus Christ.
The first five lines of the poem are in quotation marks. That’s because they are quoting the Nativity Sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Winchester. He was a prominent clergyman and scholar who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible. The original text was from the Christmas sermon he preached to the Jacobean court in 1622: "A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter." Eliot wrote an essay titled “Lancelot Andrewes” (Selected Essays, 1934), in which he praised Andrewes’ leadership in the Church of England and harmonious blend of intellect and emotion.
The voice is a choral “we” of the three Magi who are recalling the journey to Bethlehem they undertook to witness the birth of Jesus. The Magi would have been crossing the desert from Persia to Judea. The Magi could not be quoting Lancelot Andrewes, because they would have made the journey in the first year of the Christian calendar—much before Andrewes lived. With the first “And,” the voice of the poem enters into the imaginative persona established by the sermon and builds upon it. So there is a poetic consciousness that is beyond the Magi, an anachronistic voice that is also on a Christian journey.
The journey is a hard one, especially for kings who are used to the luxurious life of “summer palaces” and “silken girls bringing sherbet.” They travel a long ways in wintertime through snow on the backs of uncooperative camels, with unhappy handlers. Both the Magi and their servants are going through withdrawals from a sensuous life of earthly comforts. They are cold and homeless and alien to the communities they pass through. In this way their journey parallels that of Mary and Joseph, who are famously denied a room at the inn, so Jesus is born in a manger. Spiritually, they are being tried, and stripped of everything familiar. They go through a dark night of the soul, literally and figuratively, with the voices of doubt discouraging them.
In the second stanza, the men enter a "temperate valley," and a shift occurs. The word “temperate” holds two meanings here: the valley is both mild and restrained. This is in contrast to the worlds described in the first stanza—both the precarious and decadent summer palaces, and the extremely cold winter in the desert. There is a supernatural and symbolic seasonal shift to spring: the valley is a fertile place, represented by water and the smell of vegetation. The running stream and water-mill also give movement to a landscape that was frozen in the last stanza. This is also a Biblical allusion: In John 4:10-14, Jesus called himself the Living Water. The stream powers a mill “beating the darkness,” alluding to Jesus’ claim in John 8:12 to be the Light of the World. The “three trees low on the sky” have been interpreted variously by scholars to refer to the crucifixion of Christ with the two thieves on crosses to either side of him, or the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This is an example of both symbolism and foreshadowing. The “white horse” refers to the one in Zechariah 6:5, who announces the coming of Jesus.
The Magi arrive at a tavern with “vine-leaves over the lintel,” a Biblical allusion to both the story of Passover from Exodus 12 and the notion of Christ as the “True Vine” (John 15:1, 5). The word “lintel” is rooted in the Latin word limen, which means threshold. They are on the threshold before both the entry to Bethlehem, and the moment before Christ is born, which for the Christian faithful will change the world entirely. The "hands" and "feet" in the next two lines are synecdoches, referring to people who are gambling and kicking wineskins to call for alcohol, by the parts of their bodies that are used in these debased actions. They are also biblical allusions to the bartering for Christ (Matthew 26:14-16) and Jesus’ parable of the new wine (Matthew 9:17). The faith of the Magi continues to be tested, as they receive no information, and “arrive not a moment too soon,” which could mean that they were at the end of their tether, or that they arrive just before or after Christ was born. Then there’s the peculiar phrase “Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.” This could be interpreted as the haughty, snarky view of kings looking down upon the stable in which Christ was born. But some scholars have also seen in it a reference to Article 31 of the Anglican Articles, in which Christ's sacrifice "satisfies" the debt of all mankind’s sins.
The first line of the final stanza situates it at a later time than the other two stanzas. It frames the text as a story within a story, and makes the speaker’s tale less reliable, as it is a memory of a long-ago event. The speaker has shifted to a singular “I” who is evaluating the journey after it has past. He decides that he “would do it again,” but that’s not his final thought—there’s a comma and a “but,” a qualifier, and then the urgent plea, repeated twice, to “set down this,” which means write this down. The lines “but set down/ This set down/ This” come from speech patterns that Andrewes used in his Nativity sermons of 1616, 1622, and 1623. Then we get to the question that’s critically important to the Magus: “were we led all that way for/Birth or Death?”
He starts to think through the answer to his question with “There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt.” This is a rational critical consciousness, assessing the historical fact of Jesus’ birth. He relates this to his past experience with birth and death, and says that he “had thought they were different.” Indeed, birth and death are usually figured as opposites. So, we are entering the realm of paradox here, as he relays his emotional experience of Christ’s birth: “this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This experience has changed his view of the fundamental meaning of life and death, and made them synonymous. It reflects the painful paradox at the heart of Christianity: Christ was born to die.
Notice the capitalizations of Birth and Death in these lines: this is granting a deference to Christ that conveys the Magus’ and the poet’s faith. The second “death” in this line is not capitalized, as it refers to the Magi’s death. This is significant because it sets up a contrast: Christ’s “Death” is more important than the Magi’s “death.” This must refer to a metaphoric death, since the Magus speaks while he is still living. (Indeed, it is a simile). In imagining how the birth and death of Christ relates to the metaphoric death of the Magi, it’s significant to note that the word Magi also meant Sorcerers; the word comes from the same root as magic. So the birth of Christianity is also the death of the old ways of Magicians. The Magi lost their magic, their power, their relevance, and experienced a type of social death.
The Magus then returns to his story, to tell a coda of the return to their kingdoms. Remember, these were the sensual palaces they left behind to make the journey. But he has changed, and is “no longer at ease.” In Christian theology, “dispensation” means a divinely ordained system prevailing at a particular period of history. The phrase “the old dispensation” means that the divine system, the meaning of life, has changed. He then finds his own people to be “alien” as they “clutch” false idols.
The Magus is existentially exhausted and ultimately suicidal, as he ends with “I should be glad of another death”—meaning his own. In this deeply anticlimactic ending, the poem imagines the advent of Christianity as a calamity for the old world. He may also wish for death because he no longer has use for earthly pleasures, and looks forward to the kingdom of heaven. Another possible interpretation of the last line is that the Magus is speaking during the time period when Christ has been born, but has not yet died. The Magus would then be wishing for Christ’s death, and thus for his resurrection and the salvation of mankind. It's important to notice that these two possible meanings of the last line of “Journey of the Magi” are not mutually exclusive: the context of the poem is the point of view of someone with a new faith that makes his old position and world obsolete. He is waiting for his own death, along with the death and of Christ, who will be born again to redeem the world and usher in a new dispensation, a world in which the Magi themselves have no place.