Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Magi

As one might expect, the central characters in T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" are the biblical Magi from the Christmas story presented in Matthew 2. Although tradition assumes only three Magi, named Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, Eliot does not specify the names of his Magi nor their number. The poem is written in the first person, but for the majority of it, the speaker uses plural pronouns to include his fellow travelers. Only beginning in the final stanza in line 32 does he use the singular pronoun "I" as he reflects upon the meaning of the journey.

People the Magi Encounter and Remember

The poem describes the journey of the Magi from their home in the East (traditionally believed to be Iran) to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. On such a long journey, the men certainly would have encountered many people, but Eliot is coy about describing the others. First, he mentions "the silken girls bringing sherbet." These represent the remembered luxuries of home. Next he refers to "the camel men . . . running away." Presumably, these were servants who began the journey but deserted their masters for "liquor and women." Though he goes on to mention "cities hostile," "towns unfriendly," and "villages dirty," he gives no other details about specific characters the Magi would have met there.

The Gamblers

In the second stanza, Eliot introduces three characters, but again, we see them only in the abstract. As the Magi come to a tavern, they see three gamblers, but they are described only as "six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, and feet kicking the empty wine-skins." When they return to their "Kingdoms," they feel uncomfortable among "an alien people clutching their gods."

Jesus Christ

Surprisingly, the most important character of the poem is never mentioned. Eliot only uses "this Birth" to refer to the Christ child. Yet Jesus Christ was the reason for the journey and the reason their lives were never the same. The poem is a remarkable example of understatement. By downplaying the other people in the poem, Eliot allows readers to fully enter into the thoughts of one of the Magi, to journey with him, and perhaps to be changed as he was.

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