Eliot utilizes several literary devices to convey his twist on the story of Christ's birth, and, as expected, most of them are religious symbols and allusions.
The first is expressed literally in the poem - the religious journey of the magi, or priest who is recounting his journey years beyond the time it occurred. This flashback technique allows for retrospection and insight gained in the time since the event. Of course the journey motif is one of a reflection on one's life. The magi is doing just that.
The imagery in the first section depicts the harshness of the journey, the cold, the animals' stubborness, and their guides desertion. The journey, in the second stanza, becomes more pleasant, citing a "temperate valley," and a tranquil stream, both symbols of peace and harmony.
While here, we are given the picture of men gambling at a tavern, which alludes to the gamblers Christ drove out of the temple in the Bible and infers the need of a savior. The darkness has turned to light; they are in Bethlehem and find the infant.
However, years later, the magi is reflecting on this miraculous event. Christ has already been crucified. He was essentially born to die, making the magi wonder " were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death?" This question is universal? All men are born; all men die.
Eliot uses anaphora, or starting lines with the same word. This provides a rhythmic effect, as well as the sense of reciting a litany. We find this in the repeated use of the word "And" to begin lines, for example:
And the camel . . .
And running away . . .
And the night fires . . .
Anaphora is used too in the final stanza, though in a more muted way, in the repetition of the words "but" and "this."
However—and this is where it gets interesting—Eliot, the master of allusion, uses the anaphora technique allusively. Allusion is the literary device in which a poet points to another work of literature in his own text. In this Biblically-themed poem about the birth of Christ, the anaphora echoes the Bible, especially the Psalms, which are noted for their use of anaphora. Eliot also uses allusions to the Bible when he mentions, among other things, wineskins and three trees (referring to Jesus being one of three men hung together on crosses).
Eliot uses alliteration to build a rhythmic effect. Alliteration means beginning words with the same consonant within a line. Eliot does this in such lines as
The summer palaces on slopes . . .
The camel men cursing . . .
Vivid imagery helps bring the poem alive as well. Imagery is using the five senses to put the reader in a scene: Eliot writes in ways that allow us to see glimpses of what the narrator telling the story sees, such as "silken girls bringing sherbet" and "villages dirty."