“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”).
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.