As per the Gospel story, the Magi were the three wise men namely Balthazar- King of Chaldea, Gaspor - King of Ethopia, Melchoir -King of Nubia who belonged to the priestly class of magicians and had come to Bethlahem to pay homage to infant Christ presenting him with gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. They symbolise wandering human souls in search of spirituality, the eternal spiritual quester.
The poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ opens with the nativity sermon of Lancelot Andrews preached in 1622 which describes the hardships Magi faced due to deep ways, sharp weather, meeting snow and hostile conditions which were hard to combat : ‘ A cold coming we had of it/ Just the worst tme of the year’ in ‘the very dead of winter’.The Magus admits that there was introspection promoted for ‘there were times we regretted’ as they had given up materialistic pleasures and sensuality of ‘Summer places on the slope’ and ‘silken girls bringing sherbet.’
Besides wondering whether it was worth the effort, their major issue of search was ignored and the day to day difficulties bogged them down with ‘camelmen cursing and grumbling’, ‘night fires going out’ and ‘villages, dirty and charging high prices’. and they admitted, ‘A hard time we had of it’.
The Magi now ‘preferred to travel all night’ and faced agonising moments of self doubt : ‘voices singing in our ears saying that this was all folly’ before they finally reached a temperate valley.
The second half of the poem abounds in symbolism with the temperate valley signifing the change in their lives that followed the ardous journey. They come across a ‘ running stream’ depicting the timelessness of their journey; ‘watermill beating the darkness’ continuing the image of extinction and renewal; ‘three trees signifing three crosses at calvary; ‘an old white horse’, a metaphor for rebirth of Christ, the Savior and the defeat of paganism; ‘Vine leaves over the lintel’ again symbolic of the vine that christ metamorphosed into his blood; ‘Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver’ refers to betrayal of christ by Judas and lastly ‘feet kicking empty vine skins ’is symbolic of the worn out forms and rituals of the old dispensation.
The Magus describes their destination as : ‘Finding the place, it was ( you may say) satisfactory’. Such a deliberate understatement reflects the turmoils in the minds of the Magi as an outcome of the clash of their old dispensation and new beliefs.
The last twelve lines describe the psychological change in Magi as they wore caught in confusion and perplexity and claimed that ‘This birth was hard and bitter agony for us like Death’. The journey marked the end of their old dispensation but didnot give them satisfaction of faith for the Magus claims, ‘I should be glad of another death’ so that he may be born into a new faith.
The poem can be studied at three levels : The actual journey of the Magi; Eliot’s journey from doubt to faith while his conversion to anglicanism, and journey of any individual in spiritual quest.
belonging to the Ariel poems, the journey traces Eliot’s own spiritual quest and his yearing for sublime peace.
The monologue reconfirms the universal truth that the brave and the dauntless who embark upon journies with conviction are graced with divinity but it is sensual jdesires and temptations that need to be overcome.