The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
From the time that he prepared “The Hollow Men” for publication in 1925 until he wrote “Journey of the Magi” in July, 1927, T. S. Eliot wrote virtually no poetry at all. His personal convictions underwent enormous upheaval during that two-year hiatus, culminating in his baptism into the Church of England on June 29, 1927. Shortly thereafter, the editor at Faber & Gwyer publishers, for whom Eliot worked as an editor, asked Eliot to write a Christmas poem as one in a series of short, illustrated poems called the Ariel Poems. The result was “Journey of the Magi,” published on August 25, 1927. It was, as Eliot said in an interview published in The New York Times Book Review (November 29, 1953), the poem that released the stream for all his future work. Thus the poem bears personal as well as artistic significance for Eliot.
“Journey of the Magi” is a first-person recollection of a Magus, one of the Persian Magi who came to visit the Christ child as recorded in the second chapter of Matthew. The poem is narrated, however, from the perspective of many years later, after the Magus has returned to his home country. He is an elderly man, reflecting on events that occurred many years prior.
The recollection is divided into three parts. The first stanza recalls the journey itself, the long and demanding ordeal of the caravan to Judaea. The weather was very cold and sharp; the camels had sores and often balked; the camel...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This relatively simple story of the Magi is tightly packed with significance, particularly in Eliot’s use of allusion and symbolism.
The poem bears echoes of authors who influenced Eliot’s own spiritual journey, most notably Lancelot Andrewes. The poem opens with a quotation taken from Lancelot Andrewes’s Nativity sermon, preached in 1622 to the Jacobean court. As he pointed out in his essay “Lancelot Andrewes” (Selected Essays, 1934), Eliot admired Andrewes’s intellectual achievement, his ability to hold both intellectual idea and emotional sensibility in harmony, and his leadership in the church of seventeenth century England. Andrewes seemed to validate church membership for Eliot at a time when he was contemplating his own baptism into the church.
Furthermore, the staccato-like lines of the last section of the poem—the hesitation, repetition, and acceleration—were all techniques that Eliot admired in Andrewes’s prose style. Eliot’s lines in stanza 3, “but set down/ This set down/ This” also derive from patterns that Andrewes used in his Nativity sermons of 1616, 1622, and 1623.
“Journey of the Magi” creates more interest, however, by its complex pattern of biblical symbolism, which intensifies in stanza 2 as the Magi approach Bethlehem and the birth of the Christ. The symbolism seems to accelerate, as does the journey itself, toward its fulfillment.
The valley they enter is cut by a flowing stream, suggesting Jesus’ claim to be the Living Water in John 4:10-14, and this living stream powers a mill that seems to beat away the darkness, further...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.
Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.