The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Ciardi’s “A Magus” is composed of forty-seven lines forming four stanzas of unequal length. The title, which can mean a wise man, an astrologer, a magician, or a priest, apparently refers to the “missionary from the Mau Mau” mentioned in the first line. As the narrator relates in the opening stanza, this missionary has come to testify to “an amazing botany” apparently caused by “spores blowing from space.” This metamorphosis of plants into incredible hybrids provokes the cryptic observation, “The Jungle has come loose,/ is changing purpose.”

The latter part of the first stanza is in italics to indicate the missionary’s own words. The strange new qualities of transformed “Jungle” are apparently only part of a larger event, for the missionary declares, “Nor are the vegetations/ of the new continuum the only sign.” He then claims that “New eyes” now regard the world and note its change, spreading the propaganda to form “new verbs” from its seed. “Set watches on your gardens,” he ambiguously advises.

The second stanza opens with the narrator’s cautious reaction to this incredible communication: “I repeat it as he spoke it. I do not interpret/ what I do not understand.” Although claiming no comprehension of the message, he nevertheless intuits the nature of the messenger, for the religious overtones of his words—especially, “But he does come,/ signs do appear”—clearly link the...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Magus” contains many elements that are associated with clearly defined religious traditions. The poem’s cryptic language, its references to the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and symbolic colors (black, white, and red), its presentation of inexplicable signs and occurrences, and its focus on a messianic herald of a new order all indicate that it belongs to the time-honored form of mystic revelation. The poet updates this tradition, however, by inserting concrete, quintessentially modern issues and attitudes into this framework.

Ciardi creates a complex, often suggestive, and mystifying poem by using such devices as eclectic imagery, unusual juxtapositions, and an almost regular rhyme scheme. Images of conflict and change are especially abundant throughout the poem. For example, the first stanza is dominated by images of strange, nightmarish transformations in the vegetable kingdom, such as fruit “with a bearded face that howls” and “Mushrooms that bleed.” Through the common theme of change, colonialism and racism also provide images that become curiously linked to this “amazing botany.” For example, the reference to the Mau Mau (a secret terrorist organization in Kenya) alludes to Kenya’s transformation from colonial docility to militant independence, a new order that is surreally mirrored in the organic world’s “new continuum.” This implicit analogy is made more explicit by the missionary’s metaphor “A root...

(The entire section is 549 words.)