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Journey of the Magi

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‘A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins, But there was no information, and so we continued And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 24, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

More by this poet

The love song of j. alfred prufrock.

      S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse       A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,       Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.       Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo       Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,       Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

The Waste Land

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.”

For Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro

I. The Burial of the Dead

The Naming of Cats

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,      It isn’t just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES. First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,      Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,

Snow-Bound [The sun that brief December day]

Christmas morn.

How sad, how glad,    The Christmas morn! Some say, “To-day    Dear Christ was born,         And hope and mirth         Flood all the earth; Who would be sad    This Christmas morn.” How glad, how sad,    The Christmas morn! “To-day,” some say    Dear Christ was born,         But oh! He died;         Was crucified! Who could be glad    This Christmas morn! Or glad, or sad,    This Christmas morn, To some will come    A joy new-born.         The fleeting breath

From “The Dead”

Gabriel Conroy reflects on his wife’s former lover, Michael Furey.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

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The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.' And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly. Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory. All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

poem journey of the magi

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Journey of the Magi Summary & Analysis by T. S. Eliot

  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
  • Poetic Devices
  • Vocabulary & References
  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
  • Line-by-Line Explanations

poem journey of the magi

"Journey of the Magi" is a poem by T.S. Eliot, first published in 1927 in a series of pamphlets related to Christmas. The poem was written shortly after Eliot's conversion to the Anglican faith. Accordingly, though the poem is an allegorical dramatic monologue that inhabits the voice of one the magi (the three wise men who visit the infant Jesus), it's also generally considered to be a deeply personal poem. Indeed, the magus in the poem shares Eliot's view that spiritual transformation is not a comfort, but an ongoing process—an arduous journey seemingly without end. The magus's view on the birth of Jesus—and the shift from the old ways to Christianity—is complex and ambivalent.

  • Read the full text of “Journey of the Magi”

poem journey of the magi

The Full Text of “Journey of the Magi”

“journey of the magi” summary, “journey of the magi” themes.

Theme Spiritual Death and Rebirth

Spiritual Death and Rebirth

Line-by-line explanation & analysis of “journey of the magi”.

'A cold coming ... ... dead of winter.'

poem journey of the magi

And the camels ... ... girls bringing sherbet.

Lines 11-16

Then the camel ... ... had of it.

Lines 17-20

At the end ... ... was all folly.

Lines 21-25

Then at dawn ... ... in the meadow.

Lines 26-31

Then we came ... ... might say) satisfactory.

Lines 32-36

All this was ... ... Birth or Death?

Lines 36-39

There was a ... ... Death, our death.

Lines 40-43

We returned to ... ... of another death.

“Journey of the Magi” Symbols

Symbol Biblical Imagery

Biblical Imagery

  • Line 23: “running stream”
  • Line 24: “three trees on the low sky”
  • Line 25: “an old white horse”
  • Line 26: “vine-leaves”
  • Line 27: “pieces of silver”
  • Line 28: “empty wine-skins”

“Journey of the Magi” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Alliteration.

  • Line 1: “cold coming”
  • Line 4: “ways,” “deep,” “weather”
  • Line 5: “dead,” “winter”
  • Line 9: “summer,” “slopes”
  • Line 10: “silken”
  • Line 11: “camel,” “cursing”
  • Line 12: “wanting,” “women”
  • Line 18: “Sleeping,” “snatches”
  • Line 19: “singing,” “saying”
  • Line 20: “That this”
  • Line 21: “dawn,” “down,” “valley”
  • Line 22: “snow,” “smelling,” “vegetation”
  • Line 27: “Six,” “door dicing,” “silver”
  • Line 31: “say) satisfactory.”
  • Line 35: “were we,” “way”
  • Line 37: “doubt,” “death”
  • Line 38: “But,” “different,” “Birth”
  • Line 39: “bitter,” “Death,” “death”
  • Line 42: “gods”
  • Line 43: “glad”
  • Lines 1-5: “'A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter.'”
  • Lines 17-20: “At the end we preferred to travel all night, / Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.”
  • Line 4: “The,” “the weather”
  • Line 5: “The very dead”
  • Line 6: “And,” “camels,” “sore,” “refractory”
  • Line 9: “The summer palaces,” “the terraces”
  • Line 10: “the silken,” “bringing sherbet”
  • Line 11: “Then,” “men,” “grumbling”
  • Line 12: “running,” “liquor,” “women”
  • Line 13: “n,” “ight-fires”
  • Line 15: “high prices”
  • Line 16: “time”
  • Line 18: “Sleeping in”
  • Line 19: “With,” “singing in,” “saying”
  • Line 20: “this,” “all folly”
  • Line 22: “below,” “snow,” “smelling,” “vegetation”
  • Line 23: “stream,” “beating”
  • Line 24: “three trees,” “low”
  • Line 25: “And an,” “ old,” “meadow”
  • Line 26: “vine”
  • Line 27: “dicing”
  • Line 28: “wine”
  • Line 29: “no information,” “so”
  • Line 30: “too soon”
  • Line 31: “place,” “you,” “say”
  • Line 41: “ease”
  • Line 42: “people”
  • Line 3: “journey, and”
  • Line 6: “galled, sore-footed, refractory”
  • Line 9: “slopes, the”
  • Line 12: “away, and”
  • Line 13: “out, and”
  • Line 19: “ears, saying”
  • Line 22: “Wet, below,” “line, smelling”
  • Line 29: “information, and”
  • Line 30: “evening, not”
  • Line 31: “place; it”
  • Line 32: “ago, I”
  • Line 33: “again, but”
  • Line 35: “This: were”
  • Line 36: “Death? There”
  • Line 37: “doubt. I”
  • Line 38: “different; this”
  • Line 39: “us, like Death, our”
  • Line 40: “places, these”
  • Line 41: “here, in”
  • Line 2: “Just,” “ worst”
  • Line 4: “ways deep,” “the weather sharp,”
  • Line 7: “Lying down in,” “melting snow”
  • Line 8: “There were,” “ times ,” “we regretted”
  • Lines 9-10: “The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet.”
  • Lines 11-12: “Then the camel men cursing and grumbling / and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,”
  • Line 13: “night,” “-fires,” “out,” “shelters”
  • Line 14: “cities hostile,” “towns”
  • Line 15: “villages dirty ,” “high,” “ prices”
  • Line 16: “hard,” “had”
  • Line 17: “travel all”
  • Line 18: “Sleeping in snatches”
  • Line 19: “With the voices singing,” “our ears, saying”
  • Line 20: “That this was all folly”
  • Lines 21-25: “Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; / With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, / And three trees on the low sky, / And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.”
  • Line 32: “All,” “long”
  • Lines 33-35: “set down / This set down / This”
  • Line 35: “were we led all,” “way”
  • Line 37: “evidence,” “doubt,” “death”
  • Line 38: “different,” “Birth”
  • Line 39: “Hard,” “bitter,” “Death,” “death”
  • Line 42: “alien people,” “gods”
  • Line 43: “glad,” “death”

Polysyndeton

  • Line 11: “and”
  • Line 12: “and,” “and,” “and”
  • Line 13: “And,” “and”
  • Line 14: “And,” “and”
  • Line 15: “And,” “and”
  • Line 23: “and”
  • Line 24: “And”
  • Line 25: “And”
  • Line 3: “journey,” “journey”
  • Line 36: “Birth or Death,” “Birth”
  • Line 37: “ birth and death,”
  • Line 38: “Birth”
  • Line 39: “ Death, our death”
  • Line 43: “death”

Rhetorical Question

  • Lines 35-36: “were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?”
  • Lines 4-5: “The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter.'”
  • Lines 11-16: “Then the camel men cursing and grumbling / and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, / And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, / And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly / And the villages dirty and charging high prices: / A hard time we had of it.”
  • Line 22: “Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;”
  • Lines 24-25: “And three trees on the low sky, / And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.”

“Journey of the Magi” Vocabulary

Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

  • The Old Dispensation
  • (Location in poem: )

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “Journey of the Magi”

Rhyme scheme, “journey of the magi” speaker, “journey of the magi” setting, literary and historical context of “journey of the magi”, more “journey of the magi” resources, external resources.

Eliot's Reading — The poem read by its author. 

Lancelot Andrewes's Sermon — The 1622 Christmas sermon of the British bishop Lancelot Andrewes, which Eliot adapted for the poem's opening. 

A Documentary on the Poet — A BBC production about Eliot's life and work. 

Eliot and Christianity — An article exploring Eliot's relationship with his religion.

More Poems and Eliot's Biography — A valuable resource on Eliot's life and work from the Poetry Foundation.  

LitCharts on Other Poems by T. S. Eliot

Four Quartets: Burnt Norton

La Figlia Che Piange

Morning at the Window

Portrait of a Lady

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

The Hollow Men

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Waste Land

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Journey of the magi.

by T. S. Eliot

Journey of the Magi - T. S. Eliot

I think this is the first time I've ever read any of my own poems over the radio for either an American or an English audience, though I've done so once or twice for overseas services...I shall now take one of my 'Ariel' poems. 'Ariel Poems' was the title of a series of poems which included many other poets as well as myself. These were all new poems which were published during four or five successive years as a kind of Christmas card. Nobody else seemed to want the title afterward so I kept it for myself, simply to designate four of my poems which appeared in this way. 'Journey of the Magi' is obviously a subject suitable for the Christmas season.

‘A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins, But there was no information, and so we continued And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

Journey of the Magi is from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974), by permission of the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd and kind support of The T S Eliot Foundation. Recording by permission of the BBC. Find the T S Eliot Foundation here: https://tseliot.com/ Find our T S Eliot Prize Winners’ Collection, supported by the T S Eliot Foundation, here: https://poetryarchive.org/collections/t-s-eliot-prize/

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

T. S. Eliot

Explore similar poems, also by t. s. eliot, the waste land part i – the burial of the dead, the waste land part ii – a game of chess, the waste land part iii – the fire sermon, the waste land part iv – death by water, the waste land part v – what the thunder said, four quartets – extract, by similar tags, poetry archive now wordview 2023: sono, poetry archive now wordview 2023: one thing i know about healing, poetry archive now wordview 2023: when they bombed, poetry archive now wordview 2023: a boy is a corpse alive in past tense, the girls at st catherine’s.

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Journey of the Magi

poem journey of the magi

T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

poem journey of the magi

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, the innovative Modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was awarded the Nobel Prize for a body of work that includes the…

1. “Journey of the Magi” is written from the point of view of one of the magi, or wise men, who travelled from their foreign kingdoms to pay homage to the infant Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews. What does this poem gain by being told in the first person, instead of in third person? What do you notice about the character as you get to know him?  

2. Because this poem is in the voice of the magus, a speaker who is clearly not a surrogate for the poet himself, we can classify this poem as a dramatic monologue poem. Other examples of dramatic monologues include “ My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning , “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe and “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Ralegh . How is “Journey of the Magi” like or unlike other dramatic monologues you have read?  

3. The speaker describes the uncomfortable realities of a long journey and explains he and his travel companions were often tired, cold, thirsty and hungry. Hardship on the physical self is often depicted as necessary or beneficial to pursuing meaning for the spiritual self, as in “Ramadan” by Kazim Ali , which speaks of fasting. How would the impact of the poem change if the poet had not included these details about the difficulty of the journey? How do these details shape the portrait of the magus who speaks in this poem? Do you believe him when he says he “would do it again”? Why?  

4. An allusion is an implicit reference within a literary work to another work of literature, piece of art, person or event, which assumes common knowledge with the reader and which can, when used effectively, bring emotional associations from one work into another and, in that way, build depth. “And three trees on the low sky” is an image that alludes to the three crosses of the Crucifixion. Why does the speaker allude to the end of Jesus Christ’s life in a poem ostensibly about the beginning of his life? What other examples of allusions can you find in the poem? How do they enrich the poem? The speaker of the poem, the magus, says that he “should be glad of another death.” To whose death is he referring? Why would he be “glad”?  

5. Is this a poem of faith, or one of doubt? What evidence makes you think so? Read other poems, like “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins or “Church-Going” by Philip Larkin or “On My Tongue” by Alycia Pirmohamed , that explore the role of faith or lack of it as one way to imbue a person’s life with meaning.  

6. Liotodes are conscious understatements in literature—the opposite of hyperbole (exaggeration). When the magus witnesses the miracle of Jesus’s birth and calls it “satisfactory” is he using liotodes. Try reciting the poem as if the magus truly only finds the experience “satisfactory.” Next try reciting the poem in a manner which captures the magus’s understated sense of wonder and awe. Are there certain parts of the poem that you feel benefit from a more explicit expression of emotion, and other parts that demand a more repressed approach? What does the unevenness of the magus’s expressiveness tell us about the nature of his experience? How can you make that experience come alive for your audience?  

7. Think of a story that you know especially well: a myth, legend, fairy tale, or a story from a religion or faith to which you belong or know intimately. As T.S. Eliot does in “Journey of the Magi,” write a dramatic monologue poem from the point of view of one of the “minor” characters of the story. How does looking at the story from a new point of view change your feelings on the story? How can it change the feelings of your readers?  

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“Journey of the Magi” does not give any details of the magi’s eventual arrival into Bethlehem, or the image of the newborn Jesus. Curiously, the magus withholds that famous moment from his listeners. The story of the magi, of course, is recounted in the Gospel of Mathhew, 2:1.  

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_ (King_James)/Matthew#2:1  

“ We Three Kings of Orient Are ” is another piece of writing—not a poem, but a song—that is written from the point of view of the magi. Written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857, who was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for a Christmas pageant in New York City. It remains a popular Christmas carol today.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Three_Kings  

T. S. Eliot recites one of his most well-known poems, “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ,” which also is considered a dramatic monologue because of its clear characterization of the speaker. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAO3QTU4PzY&ab_channel=tim24frames

Interesting Literature

A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’

A critical reading of a classic Christmas poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Journey of the Magi’ by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was the first of a series of poems written by the poet for his employer, the publisher Faber and Faber, composed for special booklets or greetings cards which were issued in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eliot claimed he wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’ in 1927, on a single day, one Sunday after church.

You can read the poem here . Below we offer some notes towards an analysis of this difficult and elusive poem, with particular focus on its meaning and imagery.

‘Journey of the Magi’: background context

‘Journey of the Magi’ is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender) visiting the infant Christ. The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, chiefly the Zoroastrianism of the Magi themselves.

Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927 , the same year he wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’, so this is an apt poem for him to have written shortly after his acceptance into the Church of England.

According to Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, he wrote the poem very quickly: ‘I had been thinking about it in church,’ he told her years later, ‘and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth’s Gin, poured myself a drink, and began to write. By lunchtime, the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished.’

The title of the poem is significant, not least Eliot’s use of the word ‘Magi’: think about its very foreignness and its ambiguity (the term originally denoted Persian Zoroastrian priests, but had come to carry the more general meaning of ‘astrologers’ – or, if you like, magicians).

This foreign and alien quality is obviously related to what the poem is about: namely, one group of people becoming alienated by the coming of another group, the people who will, in time, follow the new religion of Christianity which will lead to the death of the religions the Magi, or astrologers, follow.

The Magi are like the ‘hollow men’ of Eliot’s poem of that title from two years before: together, they find they are alienated from the rest of the world, in some sort of between-existence or limbo (because the world is in a transition between their old Zoroastrian faith and the new, emerging faith of Christianity which will supersede it).

‘Journey of the Magi’: summary

Journey of the Magi

The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ.

It is unconventional to focus on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the point of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on.

Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The poem ends with the poem’s speaker reflecting on the journey years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it again, but he would add that we remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived.

Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his peers have felt uneasy living among his people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one god only, in the form of the Messiah).

The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.

‘Journey of the Magi’: analysis

There are several things which are odd about Eliot’s poem.

First, for a poem titled ‘Journey of the Magi’, there is no mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s nativity plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger.

Second, the actual nativity scene itself is elided from the narrative: the Magi travel to the place where Christ is to be found, locate it, and then suddenly the speaker of the poem is looking back on the journey years later as an old man.

Jesus himself is absent from the poem. Is this because this part of the story is familiar to us, but the Magi themselves are not – or specifically, how the Magi would have felt about seeing their deeply-held beliefs cast into doubt by this new Messiah? Yet surely one way to convince us of the impact of this new-born deity on the lives of these Persian astrologers would have been to show us how they reacted when faced with the baby Christ.

There are several possible reasons why Eliot would have chosen to leave Jesus out of the poem, but they all raise additional questions.

Note also how the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life and crucifixion: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion, between two thieves on the mountain; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper.

These details are significant not least because the speaker is a priest or astrologer, someone who is trained to look for significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens. But he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow; we, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance. At the end, the speaker is left feeling jaded and lost by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing, since his arrival in the world signalled the death of his religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi are world-weary and welcome the end.

‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ – and, with him, Christianity.

It is tempting to see the poem – written in the year Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion.

However, a more nuanced reading invites us to see the poem as an account of the ways in which every religious and ethnic identity is in some sense threatened, at some time or in some place, by other, more dominant groups and identities. A possible allusion to Othello’s ‘Set you down this’ (his dying words in Shakespeare’s play) points up the religious and ethnic differences which underlie the poem’s setting: Othello, like Eliot, had converted to Christianity, since he was a Muslim moor who converted when he joined the Christian world of Venice.

(It should be noted, though, that there is an alternative source for these lines in Eliot’s poem: in one of his sermons, Lancelot Andrewes writes, ‘Secondly, set down this’. As with many allusions in Eliot’s poetry, there are several possible sources which Eliot may be calling into play.)

The poem, then, is not just about religious identity but about broader issues of ethnic and cultural identity, too. Note how the poem doesn’t mention Christ’s name anywhere, or that the infant they are travelling to see is Jesus: it doesn’t need to be said. Then recall the foreignness of ‘Magi’ in that title.

The Magi are already ‘other’, the alien ones or outsiders: when the speaker tells us at the end that they returned to ‘our places, these Kingdoms’, it is tempting to see the poem as in some sense a development of ‘The Hollow Men’, which was also about a group of men feeling lost and empty in a ‘kingdom’ where they appear to long for death.

It is undoubtedly this multifaceted quality to the poem which helped it to become one of the nation’s favourite poems in 1996 (it was no. 44 on the list – one higher than the childhood favourite by Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ ).

‘Journey of the Magi’ is a more accessible poem than some of T. S. Eliot’s other work, yet it remains a challenging piece of poetry in many ways. It is only through analysing some of its images and more curious details that we can begin to appreciate it at a deeper level.

Continue to explore Eliot’s poetry with our analysis of his great religious poem, Ash-Wednesday , our introduction to his suite of religious poems  Four Quartets ,  and our discussion of his early modernist masterpiece, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ .

poem journey of the magi

Image: Journey of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 6th c. , Wikimedia Commons.

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11 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’”

What a fabulous analysis of one of my favourite poems. I always read it with a lump in my throat… the sense of despair at having outlived his sense of rightness about his own culture and religion always seems desperately sad to me. Thank you, also, for teasing out some of the more problematical aspects of this nuanced and layered poem:).

Thank you – very glad you found the analysis useful and of interest. The most poignant part for me has to be the speaker’s failure to see the significance of those symbols which foreshadow Jesus’ later life. He’s spent his whole life interpreting signs, and yet these point to a future which he will never know. A terrific poem :)

Yes! You’re right – and that aspect of the poem had never occurred to me before… which, as you say, just adds to the sense of sadness.

I had an LP of Modern Poets and this was one featured – possibly with John Gielgud reading it!

I bet it sounded wonderful, it is a lovely poem to read aloud…

Reblogged this on Manolis .

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Surely the lack of reference to Christ’s birth, the star etc (what you call elision) is due to the fact that Eliot wants to concentrate not on the event (which we should all know about, or can find out about) but on its effect on the Magi? I assume that’s why the title is “The journey (i.e. inner) of the Magi”

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Journey Of The Magi

By t. s. eliot.

T. S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.' And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no imformation, and so we continued And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

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Journey of the Magi

poem journey of the magi

T. S. Eliot is widely considered as the greatest poet of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his philosophical poem ‘The Waste Land’ which describes the meaninglessness of the modern civilization. The ‘Journey of the Magi’ is based upon a biblical story. It describes the journey of the three wise men so as to witness the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Magi is a permanent plural standing for the three wise kings of the eastern world who travelled to Bethlehem so as to witness the birth of Jesus Christ. Permanent plurals like ‘Magi’ do not have a singular form. Another example for this kind of noun is ‘police’ which means the Police Department and not a single policeman.

  • 1 Dramatic Monologue
  • 2 The difficult journey
  • 3 Temperate Valley
  • 4 Reaching the end

Dramatic Monologue

The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by one of the three wise kings. The Magi witnessed a star in the sky and guessed that it was the sign of something important going to happen. The star began to move and the Magi decided to follow it so as to reach the place where the important event was going to happen. It was a long journey and both the weather and the route were hazardous. From the very beginning of the journey, the Magi encounter various difficulties. The hazards hidden on the way show the spiritual nature of the journey. All spiritual journeys are meant to be tough.

The difficult journey

Being kings, the Magi travelled in a large group with many camels and horses moving in a caravan. The camels are usually capable of adjusting with the toughest kind of journeys in the desert. But this journey was so difficult that even the camels began to make complaints. Some of them developed sore feet and others showed signs of disobedience by lying down in the melting snow. The magi had good patience but sometimes even they felt regrets about the wisdom of launching such a long and uncertain pilgrimage. The magi travelled across extremely unfamiliar and barbarian areas of the earth. They went by summer palaces on slopes and terraces of complicated nature. In some wayside shops, exotic silken girls were found selling sherbet to the travellers.

The hardship of the journey began to affect everyone in the caravan. The camel drivers started cursing and grumbling and some of them lost their patience and began running away from the group because the journey went on and on for several days. Some of the camel men wanted more alcohol and demanded even prostitutes. Sometimes it was difficult to find shelter in the night and so the group camped in the desert with tents and such facilities. The weather was extremely cold and sometimes, the night-fires went out because of the cold wind. The caravan passed through many cities and villages of the eastern world. In many cities, the people behaved badly to the Magi. Even in the villages, the people were not very hospitable in their approach. Some of them even tried to exploit the group by charging high prices for food and accommodation. The negative attitude of the native compelled the Magi to travel only in the night time. So they lost most their sleep and when they slept in snatches, they were haunted by nightmares and strange ‘voices’ which warned them that they were heading for a futile end.

Temperate Valley

Finally their arrived at a temperate valley on one fine morning. They could feel the smell of vegetation and it was a signal of an oasis which was a great relief after such a long journey across the deserts. They also saw a running stream, a water-mill, three trees and an old white horse. The three tress represent the three crosses on Calvary where Jesus Christ was crucified along with two thieves. The old white horse is a reference to the Revelation in the Bible, which foretells about Jesus Christ's second coming . Very soon they entered the oasis and reached an inn where six hands where dicing for pieces of silver. This is a reference to Judas Iscariot who cheated Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver and the six Roman soldiers who were gambling for Jesus robe at the foot of the cross.

Reaching the end

The aim of the journey was still unfulfilled. They conducted enquiries about any important happening around the inn, but nobody could give them any useful direction. So they continued their journey and reached at their target after another stretch of travelling. When they finally reached Bethlehem, the Magi were not fully satisfied. They were in a dazed and confused condition. They came and witnessed the birth of Jesus Christ and even gave Him the customary gifts. But they were confused whether this was really a birth or a death. The birth of Jesus Christ meant not only the birth of a new religion but also the death of the old pagan religions of the Magi. The magi were extremely confused because they couldn’t come in terms with the death of their old faiths. Being wise kings, they were also spiritual leaders of their communities and so they had the responsibility of upholding the faiths of their people. But now, since they were the chosen people to witness the birth of Jesus Christ, they will have to abandon their old faiths so as to embrace Christianity. So the Magi began to get prepared for their deaths which was the only method to get reborn into perfect persons.

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  1. The Journey Of The Magi by T S Eliot

    Analysis (ai): This poem depicts a difficult and arduous journey, conveying the physical and emotional hardships endured by the Magi as they sought the newborn Christ. Its vivid imagery, alliterative language, and conversational tone create a sense of immediacy and authenticity. Compared to Eliot's other works, this poem is more straightforward and less symbolically complex.

  2. Journey of the Magi

    Born in Missouri on September 26, 1888, T. S. Eliot is the author of The Waste Land, which is now considered by many to be the most influential poetic work of the twentieth century. "Journey of the Magi" was published as a pamphlet in August 1927 by Faber & Gwyer, being the first of T. S. Eliot ...

  3. The Journey Of The Magi

    A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.'. And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing ...

  4. Journey of the Magi Poem Summary and Analysis

    Learn More. "Journey of the Magi" is a poem by T.S. Eliot, first published in 1927 in a series of pamphlets related to Christmas. The poem was written shortly after Eliot's conversion to the Anglican faith. Accordingly, though the poem is an allegorical dramatic monologue that inhabits the voice of one the magi (the three wise men who visit the ...

  5. Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot (Poem + Analysis)

    'Journey of the Magi,' a notable poem from Eliot's 'Ariel' collection, reflects on religion and spiritual growth, themes prevalent in his post-conversion to Anglicanism works. Published in 1928, Eliot's conversion influenced his writing, as seen in his declaration in 'For Lancelot Andrewes' of being a "classicist in literature, royalist in ...

  6. Journey of the Magi

    Journey of the Magi. " Journey of the Magi " is a 43-line poem written in 1927 by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). It is one of five poems that Eliot contributed for a series of 38 pamphlets by several authors collectively titled the Ariel Poems and released by the British publishing house Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber ).

  7. Journey of the Magi

    Journey of the Magi. 'A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year. For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.'. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted.

  8. Analysis of the Poem 'Journey of the Magi' by T.S. Eliot

    In summary, 'Journey of the Magi' is a poem that explores the journey the wise men took when following the star to Bethlehem where the Christ child was born. It is a metaphorical poem, representing both birth and death, renewal and spiritual rebirth. The speaker is a magi whose narrative is split into three stanzas, distinct parts: The journey ...

  9. Journey of the Magi

    7. Think of a story that you know especially well: a myth, legend, fairy tale, or a story from a religion or faith to which you belong or know intimately. As T.S. Eliot does in "Journey of the Magi," write a dramatic monologue poem from the point of view of one of the "minor" characters of the story.

  10. A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi'

    A critical reading of a classic Christmas poem - analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle 'Journey of the Magi' by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was the first of a series of poems written by the poet for his employer, the publisher Faber and Faber, composed for special booklets or greetings cards which were issued in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

  11. Journey of the Magi Summary

    On the surface, Eliot's poem is about the journey of the magi (three wise men) to Bethlehem for the birth of Christ. However, if we dig a little deeper, the poem also highlights a parallel theme ...

  12. Journey Of The Magi poem

    'A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.' And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet.. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling ...

  13. Journey Of The Magi

    Journey Of The Magi by T. S. Eliot. 'A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year. For a journey, and such a journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.'. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow.

  14. 'Journey of the Magi' by T.S. Eliot

    Journey of the Magi is an allegorical poem — this means that it uses symbolism to communicate a deeper hidden meaning. With the literal journey of the Magi from a pre-Christian world towards a new spiritual world, T.S. Eliot essentially conveys how religion is a way to transcend this life through the death of one life — one faith — and ...

  15. Poem: Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot

    " A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter. " And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

  16. What is the background of T. S. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi

    The poem was written by Eliot after his conversion to the Church of England. It describes the journey of the magi bearing gifts to the infant Jesus, guided by a star that pointed the way to the ...

  17. Journey Of The Magi

    Journey Of The Magi is a poem by T S (Thomas Stearns) Eliot. 'A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a journey:The ways deep and the weather...comments, analysis, and meaning. Journey Of The Magi Login | Join PoetrySoup.

  18. Journey of the Magi Themes

    Last Updated September 5, 2023. "Journey of the Magi" is based on the biblical story of the Magi, the three wise men who witnessed the birth of Christ. One of the critical themes of Eliot's poem ...

  19. Journey of the Magi

    Journey of the Magi. T. S. Eliot is widely considered as the greatest poet of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his philosophical poem 'The Waste Land' which describes the meaninglessness of the modern civilization. The 'Journey of the Magi' is based upon a biblical story. It describes the journey of the three wise men so as to witness the birth of ...

  20. The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

    The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot. "A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey". Poetry and Epiphany The Season of the Nativity lends itself to reading poetry. Think of the secular A Visit From St. Nicholas or any number of carols we find ourselves humming, even after the tree has ...

  21. T. S. Eliot reads "Journey of the Magi"

    Check out my Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bob_toomey.A rare recording taken from a live interview T. S. Eliot did for the BBC, broadcast during World ...

  22. What are the five themes of "Journey of the Magi"?

    The poem "Journey of the Magi" by T. S. Eliot is told in the form of a dramatic monologue by one of the wise men on a quest to find the Christ child. In its three stanzas, it relates the long ...

  23. Journey of The Magi

    The two stanzas in T.S. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi" differ in tone and subject. The first stanza depicts the harsh journey of the Magi through difficult weather. It uses negative words to create a bleak atmosphere. The second stanza has a different, more hopeful tone conveyed through symbolic and allusive language as it describes the Magi's search for rest. Eliot presents birth as ...