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The Journey of the Magi
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The Journey of the Magi

The Journey of the Magi is a topos of Christian painting and literature. It refers to the journey of three wise men mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

In the New Testament of the Bible, the birth of Jesus Christ was attended by a new star. Some "magi" followed the star, which they saw as indicating a new king in the astrological house of the Jews, and came to pay homage. These men are assumed to be three in number, because they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. According to Herodotus, the word "magi" refers to a sacred sect of astrologers in Medes who provided the priests of Persia. Only Matthew provides an account of the veneration by the magi.

The account of the visit, in Matthew 2, has been a popular topic for Christian art and literature. The scene has been found in the earliest Christian pictorial art, and it was a popular tableau in the Renaissance. While the number of magi is indefinite in Matthew, tradition settled on three (as the three would mirror the trinity and because of the gifts) and gave them names (see Magus for more).

The Poem

In the 20th century, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem entitled "The Journey of the Magi." The poem was written after Eliot's conversion to Christianity and confirmation in the Church of England in 1927 and published in Ariel Poems in 1930.

The poem is an account of the journey from the point of view of one of the magi. It picks up Eliot's consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed. In this regard, with a speaker who laments outliving his world, the poem recalls Arnold's "Dover Beach," as well as a number of Eliot's own works. The poem is, instead of a celebration of the wonders of the journey, largely a complaint about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that "this was all folly." The magus seems generally unimpressed by the infant, and yet he realizes that the incarnation has changed everything. He asks,
". . . were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?"
The birth of the Christ was the death of his world of magic, astrology, and paganism. The speaker, recalling his journey in old age, says that after that birth his world had died, and he had little left to do but wait for his own end.

There are at least two formal elements of the poem that are interesting. The first is that the poem maintains Eliot's long habit of using the dramatic monologue -- a form he inherited and adapted from Robert Browning. The speaker of the poem is in agitation and speaks to the reader directly. His revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress. As with other works, Eliot chooses an elderly speaker -- someone who is world weary, reflective, and sad (cf. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gerontion, the Tiresias narrator of The Waste Land, and possibly the narrator of The Hollow Men). His narrator in this poem is a witness to historical change who seeks to rise above his historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings.

Secondly, the poem has a number of symbolist elements, where an entire philosophical position is summed up by the manifestation of a single image. For example, the narrator says that on the journey they saw "three trees against a low sky"; the single image of the three trees implies the historical future (the crucifixion) and the spiritual truth of the future (the skies lowered and heaven opened). These features are not "symbols" in the usual sense. They are physical features that contain what the Symbolists would see as a transhistorical truth. This is notable in that Eliot, although using symbols throughout his poetic career, did not write in a Symbolist manner as often in the middle of his career, as he had moved instead toward a more fragmentary view of human perception of truth.

The text of the poem is widely printed on the world wide web.