Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“The Three Magi” contrasts a well-loved part of the Christmas story, particularly popular in dominantly Catholic Poland, with the cruelty and fear associated with an oppressive government. The worship and nobility of the Magi are set against the official coldness of the representatives of the dictatorial regime. The exotic, royal presence of the Magi also contrasts with the ordinariness of the men who come on the gloomy morning, emphasized by the man’s recognition that one of the visitors is an old schoolmate who has changed little from days gone by but who now treats him without warmth or recognition. What should be, in any normal situation, a joyful reunion is aloof and unfriendly, heightening the quiet brutality of a government that operates by such tactics and making an ordinary man seem less appealing or impressive than commonplace humanity. Although prosperous, the agents lack any trace of the regal qualities usually associated with the true Magi.

A further grim threat to be feared is implied by the aftermath of the Magi’s visit in the Bible. The foreign visitors unintentionally awaken Herod’s jealousy, causing him to send his soldiers to kill all the boy babies of Bethlehem so he will be sure he has slain the infant king the Magi were seeking. Mary and Joseph barely escape, but there is much suffering in the village of Bethlehem as those who remained mourn their murdered children. This suggests a dark future for the unfortunate detainee, for, in his case, the government representatives did find the person they were sent out to apprehend. Like Herod and his soldiers, the government the agents represent believes any measure, however drastic or callous, is justified if it maintains the existing state of affairs. “The Three Magi” is not entirely harsh, however. The episode of the man wondering about myrrh and resolving to find out more about it provides a lighter touch, for many readers have wondered about the same thing. Similarly, his musing that his old friend might have gained a little weight reminds the reader of normal experience. In the end, though, the softer, almost amusing side of the poem reinforces the overall sense of unfairness as the man with whom the reader has come to sympathize is carried off by his visitors to an uncertain future.

The poem was dedicated to Lech Dymarski, a writer, theatrical figure, and critic of the government of Poland during the middle and late 1970’s. The “you” of the poem, the man who is taken away, is in a position in which both Dymarski and Baraczak were fully aware they could have found themselves, for writers were frequently questioned by the government in Poland at that time. The interrogations could end with only minor punishments such as reprimands and fines, but there was always a risk of imprisonment, exile, or worse. It is the threat that men and women such as Baraczak and Dymarski faced that Baraczak commemorates and describes in “The Three Magi.”