Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Two important themes of Eliot emerge, and they link the poem to both his earlier and his later work. Like so many of Eliot’s patterns, they are themselves in tension: light and dark, water and aridity.
Eliot’s earlier poems are full of hot sunlight blasting across arid landscapes. It is a destructive light, seeming to drive people inward toward a spiritual isolation and darkness. “Journey of the Magi” begins in such a darkness. In fact, the Magi, after their guides desert them and they meet hostilities along the way, prefer to travel in darkness. The pattern signifies a lack of spiritual direction, a mere wandering, but it is only by the traveling itself that one can hope to apprehend the light. Moreover, their seeking is reciprocated. The power of the stream drives a water mill that drives away the night. Light does come, and with it comes revelation. A way is given; an end to the seeking is arrived at.
Concomitantly with the dawning of light comes the presence of renewing water. Although the travel of the Magi is not through the parched landscape of The Waste Land (1922), it is through an equally sterile and arid landscape of the cold winter. With the dawning, however, they meet the stream of running water. The two patterns work synchronously: The light signifies illumination; the water, renewal. Light and water are both notably absent in Eliot’s earlier poems; they appear in significant ways, however, in the poetry he wrote following “Journey of the Magi.” The poem represented a crossroads in Eliot’s poetic career, providing a direction for his work to follow.