Last Updated September 5, 2023.
On the surface, Eliot's poem is about the journey of the magi (three wise men) to Bethlehem for the birth of Christ. However, if we dig a little deeper, the poem also highlights a parallel theme: a change or conversion from one religious state to another. It's noteworthy that Eliot wrote "Journey of the Magi" in 1927, the same year he converted to Christianity. In this poem, it is the magi who experience a sea change in their religious convictions as they travel to Bethlehem.
The poem appears to be narrated by one of the magi. He tells us that the winter journey is fraught with challenges. In fact, they seem to be traveling at the worst time of the year. Even the camels are rebelling at the enormity of it all. We get the general idea that the journey is a struggle, a symbol of the strain experienced when one wrestles with matters of faith.
At one point in the journey, the magi can't help regretting what they left: the comfort of sumptuous palaces, replete with beautiful women, free-flowing liquor, and sherbet. To add to their misery, the magi find that their night fires keep going out. They also can't find good shelter anywhere. The cities and towns are unfriendly; the villages are dirty and charge high prices. The magi begin to regret making the journey to a foreign destination.
All is not lost, however. The magi eventually arrive at a "temperate valley." They see vegetation, streams, and a water-mill. Upon stopping at a tavern, they inquire about the route to Bethlehem. The six tavern customers have no information. They are too busy drinking and gambling. The phrase "dicing for pieces of silver" is significant. It seems to be an allusion to Judas's eventual betrayal of Christ. The ominous tone soon passes, however, and the magi eventually arrive at their destination.
There is another noteworthy religious symbol: the three trees on the "low sky." The trees appear to foreshadow Christ's death on the cross flanked by two thieves. Throughout the poem, there is the underlying feeling of loss, struggle, suffering, and death, as if alluding to the fact that faith is not without its price. Christ comes to save the world but must suffer an excruciating death.
Similarly, the magi make the treacherous journey to pay their respects to a new king. The journey changes them, but they find themselves displaced upon their return home. The "old dispensation" or ways no longer puts them at ease. Their people appear "alien" to them, leading the magi to wish for their own deaths.