The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

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.”

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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 missionary-magus to the supernatural events he describes.

In the following division of the stanza, the narrator goes on to relate other, equally strange phenomena, such as “poisoned islands,” fish that “glow in the dark,” and “unknown air.” All of these contrast with the signs of the new organic “continuum,” for they are the inorganic marvels of modern technology, as the references “lectern,” “radar,” “phone,” and “planes” indicate.

As the preceding stanza did, the third begins with the narrator’s own reactions. His opening question—“How many megatons of idea is a man?”—links humanity and technology, metaphysics and physics. His words are the same as before, with one significant exception: “I have heard, and say/ what I heard said and believe.” His belief, although clearly centered on the natural world and its odd new order, is focused on the magus himself. Twice, the narrator asserts that he has witnessed miracles and portents—such as the transmutation of “water to blood” and the curiously faithful “cloud” formed by the birds—that surround the magus. Although the narrator sees these things with his own eyes, he remains mystified: “these things I believe whose meaning I cannot say.”

Consisting only of a one-line statement (“Then he closes his fist and there is nothing there”), the final stanza abruptly ends both the poem and its miraculous vision. Both the unsettling question at the end of stanza 2 (“Is a fact true?”), and the sudden nothing in the magus’ hand provoke readers to pose their own questions and make their own judgments.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

“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 is a tongue,” in which the idea of native land and native tongue become firmly united.

Images of technological conflict predominate in the second stanza. Certain scientific images—“radar,” “[Geiger] counters,” “red phone”—contribute global ecological and political associations to the poem’s millenarianist vision. Yet others present modern technology within a context of violence, as when the planes “howl to the edge of sound” and “crash through” the world.

Ciardi even uses science’s chronic interrogation of the universe as a symbolic image, for questions embody the insatiable, inquisitive hunger of the scientific method itself. For example, by asking, “Is a fact true?” the poet uses the assumptions and logic of scientific inquiry to highlight the values science implicitly asserts. When “Israeli teams” allegedly find “the body” of Christ, the question arises whether Christianity and Easter automatically are “false,” or “not true.” By posing the important question closing stanza 2, the narrator reminds the reader that the “fact” of science does not preserve an accurate, integrated picture of truth, although it may believe it does; actually, it only presents particular fragments of that truth.

This observation provides the context for the third stanza, in which the poet brings together many of the eclectically gathered images so as to convey a series of significant juxtapositions. Science and humanism, faith and reason, African and European, black and white—all converge in the irrational scene the narrator witnesses. Incredible, inexplicable “facts”—the British “Lion” who renounces his “Empire,” the magus’ spontaneously combustible hand, the supernatural “ray” that shoots “to the top of the air” from the magus’ head—intermingle in the incomprehensible realms of magic and miracles.

The last stanza presents a final, critical, juxtaposition: When the magus “closes his fist and there is nothing there,” illusion and reality, truth and lie, confront each other. Using the ultimate device of an open-ended ending, the poet deftly completes the poem’s form and meaning by obscuring its own mystical vision and devices.

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