Friday, March 26, 2021

Analysis of TS Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi".

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A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For the journey, and such a long journey

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

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The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,

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.

The Journey of the Magi is possibly one of the easier Eliot poems to interpret, if aspects of his personal life are considered, as it is essentially a poem about Eliots own journey from atheism to faith. Written around the time of his baptism and acceptance into the Anglican Church, in 17, the poem describes the journey of the three wise men from the East towards Christ, and symbolically, towards Christianity.

This narrative poem, while not employing a typical poetic tendency of rhyme, has a relatively steady pattern of around four beats in a line, in an almost comforting style, similar to the way verbal stories are told, and handed down. Also given this style and the religious topic of the poem, it becomes quite reminiscent of the way in which the Bible is written.

The narrative of the poem follows the journey of the three wise men, from the perspective of one of them, to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus Christ. As they journey on their way towards the saviour they begin to learn that the world around them has become full of corruption, with very little good left in either the world or humanity. Slowly, after time, the wise men realize that a death from this materialistic world is the only way to be born into the Kingdom of paradise - heaven.

This poem touches mainly on the theme of a journey as I've said, it speaks of not only the physical journey of the magi to Jesus, the magi's spiritual journey to the worship of Christianity, but also the journey from innocence to realisation about the world and finally to redemption.

This last theme can be seen most readily in the three-stanza structure of the poem. The first stanza is about innocence. Both spiritually and mentally innocent, the Magi have no perception of the adversity that a journey to praise baby Jesus will involve. To their alarm, in this stanza they begin to see the state that their world is in, corrupt and hostile, with little good apparent.

This leads into the second stanza, which develops the magi's realisations about the world and it's corruption. Despite this, they still have high expectations of a grand birth of their saviour, and when they arrive at His birth, it is apparent that they did not expect an event so humble.

The third stanza deals with the magi's redemption. The wise man, whose perspective the poem is told from reflects on the events of the journey that have passed. The magus is contemplating, and finally comes to an understanding of the paradox that one must die; leave this world in order to be born into true paradise.

This structure, which follows quite a traditional style of a classical journey, strengthens Eliots story of the spiritual and physical passage of the Magi.

There are quite a few major images that appear throughout this poem that bear quite a significance to the meanings found in the poem.

The first five lines are taken from Lancelot Andrewes Nativity Sermon, of 16, which was used by Eliot as a second, quoted voice to begin the poetic drama. These lines must be understood as being read to, or by the magi, and so causes the magus to recall his journey. The use of these lines from this sermon are particularly pertinent to Eliot, as at the time when he wrote this poem, he was very interested, and strongly influenced by Andrewes, one of the bishops and scholars responsible for the development of the King James translation of the Bible.

Another image that Eliot uses is that of the 'cities hostile' in line 14. These cities are the places that remind the travellers, by their hostile and violent contrast, of the places of contentment that they have left in search of spiritual fulfilment, such as the "the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, and the silken girls bringing sherbet."

Many of the major images used in this poem refer to significant Christian events. The main images that allude to the biblical events include the arrival into a "temperate valley"(line 1), and the "three trees on the low sky" (line 5). The early morning descent into a temperate valley evokes ideas about three significant events the nativity and the ideas of the dawning of a new era, the empty tomb of Easter, and the image of (as stated in the "Confrontation with Christianity" review) the 'Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness'.

The Magi's dawn arrival is also symbolic of the new life, attained through their penance, and their actions of searching for Christ.

"The three trees" appear to refer to the three crosses of the crucifixion, while the line "six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver" recalls both the Roman soldiers gambling over Jesus robes and the price of Judas betrayal.

One of the more ambiguous, and therefore one of the most discussed images of the poem is the image of the old white horse (line 5). While some hold to the suggestion that the white horse represents Christ's purity (by the colour), and the militaristic and conquering Christ of the biblical book of Revelation, some feel that the horse is symbolic of the death of paganism under the arrival of Christianity. However, it is also felt by some that as the description of the horse has included 'old', it could perhaps represent the death of the 'old dispensation', that is, the old way of life, that would come with Christ's birth.

While Eliot does not use many obvious poetic techniques, he does greatly employ the use of sound in his work. The most observable sound techniques he uses in this poem are assonance and repetition, which create smooth and gentle lines, which all flow quietly together. One example of assonance is in line the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bring sherbet, with the assonance appearing in the repeated 's' sound. This use of assonance and repetition creating a flowing and moving work, works with the structure of the poem as a journey, reinforcing the idea of continuity.

The third stanza contains the best example of use of repetition, and through this creates a significant, and quite noticeably different part of the poem leading to the Magus realizing the moral of the story and the journey.

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death (-)

The repetition of the words 'set down', 'birth' and 'death' emphasizes the presence and meaning of these words, and how they apply on the whole to the Magi's journey. These lines bring the whole journey into perspective spiritually, and reveal the greater message of the poem, that with the birth of Christ came a death of the old ways of life, and also shows the magi's understanding of the paradox of having to die to be born into eternal life. This paradox is one that runs through the whole poem, appearing most notably in one of the earlier discussed images of the three trees on the horizon, symbolizing that even before Christ was born, images reflecting his death and the significance of this, were apparent.

This poem is quite representative of not only Eliot's work in general, but also of his changing attitudes in his life. In most of Eliot's early poetry, the explored themes are typically ones of criticism of and disillusionment with humanity and the way in which people live, an example of this criticism being 'The Waste Land'. While 'The Journey of the Magi' still shares Eliot's cynicism about the corruption and deceit in the world, it offers some hope for the future, through the confidence in the fact that after this corrupt mortal world, we will arrive somewhere better in Heaven. This confidence can be seen mainly in the last few lines

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.

Show that with the birth of Christ, and the birth of the new world and the new way of life, among the old ways of life, the greed and corruption, the magi no longer feel content with this world, and are looking forward to that day when they die of this existence, and are reborn into eternal life.

This poem reflects the changes that Eliot was going though in his personal life, also. In the early 10's, Eliot began visiting churches to admire their beauty, later visiting them for the sae of peace, contemplation and spiritual refreshment. According to Peter Ackroyd (the author of one of the foremost Eliot biographies), Eliot had a sense of tradition and an instinct for order within himself and found the church and faith gave him this security within a life of frustrations and struggles.

Ackroyd stated that, He was aware of what he called the void in all human affairs--the disorder, meaninglessness, and futility which he found in his own experience; it was inexplicable intellectually . . . and could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith." Eliots faith continued to grow and in 17, he was baptized in the Anglican-Catholic church. Journey of the Magi, was the first in a series of poems Eliot wrote reflecting his religious growth, and was published shortly after his baptism. It has been suggested that this poem reflects Eliots state of mind in transition between his old and new faiths, and tells one part of Eliots story in that it reflects his being ill-at-ease in the old dispensation after his conversion.

Through this poem, it is clear that Eliot wants the reader to learn the same lesson that the Magi, and indeed Eliot himself, have, that happiness and paradise can never be achieved on this deceitful, violent and hostile earthly world. To transcend the corrupt mortal world, we must first leave behind our old belief system and embrace the idea of rebirth into the holy Kingdom, and become 'glad of another death'.

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