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Topic: Journey of the Magi Analyzed – Subject Matter, Themes and Poetic Devices
This tutorial is meant to give you a complete analysis of the poem Journey of the Magi. You will know the subject matter, the themes and poetic devices in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi.
Remember that Journey of the Magi is one of the prescribed Non-African poems every WASSCE candidate must study for the period 2021 – 2025.
T.S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi
The term Magi refers to the three wise men who followed the star from the orient (east) to come and pay homage to the infant Christ born in Bethlehem.
Pronounce “magi” as /mei-jai/ with the same intonation you would say “major”.
In this tutorial, you will discover all the key points you must learn in order to give an excellent answer to any question on the poem, Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot.
Background Information: Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot wrote this poem in 1927
1927 was the year in which T.S Eliot gained both British Citizenship and conversion to the Anglican Church.
Thus the poem was inspired by Eliot’s spiritual life in the Church as well as other significant events in his life.
T.S. Eliot took the poem’s opening lines from a sermon delivered by one Bishop Lancelot Andrews in 1622 – more than 300 years before.
Subject Matter: Journey of the Magi
Journey of the Magi is a narrative poem that recounts the journey of the three wise men (magi) who, upon siting a bright shining star, travelled from the far east to discover and pay homage to the new-born Christ, Jesus.
Structure: Journey of the Magi
The poem has three stanzas.
Stanza One: The Journey, the Suffering and the Uncertainties
In the first stanza of the poem, the persona, who happens to be one of the wise men, describes the journey to Bethlehem.
The journey began right at the height of the cold season of Winter – the worst time of the year.
It was a very long and difficult journey. Even the camels they journeyed with felt the painful effects of the wintry weather.
There were other sources of discomfort for the Magi during the journey:
- Temptations to stray and follow earthly pleasures
- Lack of fire to keep them warm in the very cold weather
- Lack of shelter
- Unfriendly towns and cities
- Dirty villages with unhygienic conditions
- Unbearably high prices or high cost of living
- A lingering doubt in their mind that it was all going to be a fruitless venture.
Thus, the magi initially regretted embarking on such a journey.
Stanza Two: Arrival at the destination – Finding the Place
After travelling all night, the Magi came to a more friendly environment. This was at dawn. The persona describes the pleasant natural environment at this stage of their journey.
- the welcoming smell of vegetation in a temperate valley
- Running stream and water
- A tavern with wine leaves
However, they had still not got any information about the whereabouts of the infant Christ, Jesus. They had to keep going till evening when they finally found the place they were looking for.
But even this discovery hadn’t cleared all feeling of doubt. The satisfaction they now experienced was incomplete.
Stanza Three: Acknowledgement of spiritual rebirth
The narrator now brings us back to the present moment. As he reflects on the whole experience, he tells us all doubt in their mind about the Birth was now cleared.
But the Birth was at the same time the Death of their old selves and identities. It was like dying to be born again. And having returned to their old place, they were “no longer at ease” They felt alienated and uncomfortable among their own people and, therefore, would gladly embrace another death.
- Read Also: Analysis of The Good Morrow
Here are the major themes in the poem, Journey of the Magi.
The Theme of Spiritual Rebirth and Renewal
The poem explores the process of the inner struggles and physical challenges that one has to go through in order to achieve spiritual rebirth.
For the persona, their can be no renewal and strengthening of one’s faith without going through this painful process. But like everything worthwhile, the end justifies the means.
The Theme of Change
Change only happens when the old order gives way to the new. And this transformation hardly takes place without struggle and pain. This applies in all facets of man’s existence.
For the narrator, the spiritual transformation he and the others have experienced is worth the effort.
The Theme of the Effects of Historical Events on Society
Journey of the Magi goes beyond the level of the individual. Apart from being an exploration of the individual’s spiritual journey in search of renewal of faith, it also addresses the profound effects of historical events on whole societies and cultures.
One such effect is the change in the identity of a people anytime an event of great importance occurs.
Thus, the birth of the Christ child not only changed the lives of these three wise men. It also resulted in an irrevocable change in the cultures and religions of societies across the world.
Other Themes Worth Noting
- Alienation or enstrangement following change
- The unity of birth and death in man’s spiritual journey
- Doubt as an integral aspect of the journey of the faithful
- Suffering as a necessary ingredient for spiritual rebirth
Poetic Devices To Note
- The poem is a monologue
- Journey of the Magi is a narrative poem.
The poet takes the biblical story of the journey to Bethlehem by the three wise men at the birth of Christ Jesus and uses it to explore his personal spiritual journey toward an acknowledgement and renewal of faith.
The structure of the poem, Journey of the Magi, is built around the literary device known as contrast.
For instance, the deep feeling of satisfaction that the Magi experienced at the end of the last stanza was unlike the pains and tortures they initially went through in the first stanza.
Diction and Imagery
Through a careful selection of words and phrases, the poet succeeds in evoking images that are appropriate to the major themes he explores.
Here are some examples for you.
Images of suffering and hardship
Dead of winter
Lack of shelters
Night fires going out
Images of doubt
You may say
Images of hope and respite, freshness and renewal
These contrast sharply with the previous references (in the first stanza) to the hardship and pain they had to endure at the early stages of the journey.
Beating the darkness
These make the poem sound more pleasurable. They also reinforce the themes and meaning. They include alliteration, repetition and assonance.
Camel men cursing
Sleeping in snatches
Cursing and grumbling
Running away and wanting
An example of repetition in Journey and the Magi is the use of “and the” several times in the first stanza. Its effect is to emphasize the theme of suffering as an integral part of the journey of faith.
There are many references to the life of Christ Jesus especially in the second stanza of the poem.
Look at these examples
- Running stream – living water
- Vine leaves – Christ as the vine
- Dicing for pieces of silver – betrayal and Crucifixion of Jesus
- Empty wine-skin – parable of the wine skin
- Kingdoms – earthly pleasures and attractions in the Temptation story
- Liquor, women, cities hostile, towns unfriendly – these clearly allude to the story found in John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
I should be glad of another death
This is the very last line in the poem. It underlines the profoundly satisfying effect of this spiritual rebirth on the persona.
So satisfying it is that, if need be, he would gladly go through the difficult journey all over again.
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