The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

“The Three Magi” is a poem of twenty-four lines of varied length. The title refers to the wise men who visited the infant Jesus with gifts denoting kingship and holiness and whose coming is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany (January 6). “Epiphany” literally means “shining forth” and refers both to the holiday and, more generally, to any moment of profound insight. The title is sardonic, comparing the Magi with the three government agents who appear at the door of the man to whom the poem is addressed; however, the police who come to the door of the “you” of the poem bring only threats and despair rather than gifts. The poem has no epiphany in the usual sense of an important realization, just as there are no gifts. There is also no trace of respect or honor given to the recipient of the agents’ visit. The agents of the old Communist government of Poland have come to question the man, evidently an author, perhaps about the book he tries to push under the couch without their noticing it. At the end of the poem, the officers, instead of departing from the author as the wise men departed from Jesus, take the man away for questioning, perhaps never to return (hinted at ominously by the last line, “Wasn’t this a vast world”).

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The poem reflects the difficulty under which many writers found themselves during the days of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, when writing the “wrong” things could be disastrous and being caught with banned books was a crime. It is noteworthy that although the original collection of poetry in which “The Three Magi” first appeared is in Polish, it was first published in Paris, France. The oppression Stanisaw Baraczak describes was so real he could not publish his work in his native country; not only would official censors have prevented the book’s publication, but also Baraczak himself would have been subject to arrest and probable imprisonment by the government.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

Most of the force of the poem comes from contrasting the traditional image of the Adoration of the Magi with the unwelcome visit of the coldly polite but intrusive agents. The Magi are conventionally pictured as coming at night following a star; the officers arrive just as night gives way to morning, jarring the author they have come to interrogate from a sound sleep by banging at his door. The only star these “Magi” have is on an official identification they flash at the door while demanding entry. Like the wise men, whose visit is commemorated in the first week of the year, the police always seem to come shortly after New Year’s Day. The Magi (called Królowie, or “Kings,” in Polish) are the representatives of the world outside the village of Bethlehem who came to reverence and acknowledge Christ. In a parallel fashion, the government agents, although not kings, come into the writer’s home from the large, outside world of Communist bureaucracy as official representatives of the government and its disapproval to acknowledge him as a source of dangerous ideas who must be silenced. While Mary and Joseph are usually pictured as being dazzled by the visit of the wealthy foreigners, the recipient of the agents’ visit is dazed and shaken by the abrupt intrusion of the highly paid government officers. Further heightening the satiric comparison, the man is compared to a newborn baby, helpless and unable to think clearly when the agents begin to interrogate him.

The biblical Magi brought three gifts: gold, frankincense (sometimes generically called “incense”), and myrrh. The man, contemplating his visitors, thinks distractedly that they indeed have gold (the expensive watches they wear) and incense (the cigarettes, implicitly foreign and costly, they smoke) but that they have no myrrh. Like many modern readers of the biblical story, he even is unsure what myrrh is and promises himself that he will look it up in a dictionary when he has the time. This promise suggests a sad irony, since the man is unlikely to be able to do so for a long while. Just as Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s persecution after the Magi left them, the “Magi” visiting the man insist “You’ll come/ with us, sir,” interrupting his thoughts about myrrh. While Mary and Joseph reached safety by leaving their homeland, the man is taken from his home into custody by his visitors.

The poet also suggests a contrast with the conventional images of the Magi, depicted by artists since the Middle Ages as wearing rich, vibrant colors appropriate to royalty visiting a newborn king. This image, unspecified in the poem but so much part of the conventional image as to be suggested simply by the reference, is contrasted with the colorlessness of the cold January morning on which the well-dressed but mundane agents arrive. The light is gray, and, as the man is led out, he muses first on the whiteness of the snow and then on the blackness of the car into which they load him. Other than the gold of their watches, no other color is mentioned in the poem. Instead, everything is bleak and uninspiring. The bleakness is further emphasized by repeating the same sentence structure three times: “Isn’t this a” gray dawn, white snow, or black Fiat. This leads to the final thought, which changes the thrice-repeated wording into the past tense: “Wasn’t this a vast world.”

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