T. S. Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri, with a congenital hernia which kept him quiet as a child and out of school until he was seven or eight years old. Eliot remembers these years and the years that he attended Smith Academy and then Milton Academy in New England as happy times. After this, Eliot concentrated on philosophy, especially Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, as a student at Harvard University in order to know the truth not only of the age but of life as a whole (Pinion 9-12). After his studies at Harvard were complete, Eliot transferred to Merton College in Oxford, England, where he met Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he married on June 26, 1915. But by the end of 1915, Vivienne took ill, an event that was the beginning of health problems for both of them (Pinion 15-26).
In the early years of his first marriage, Eliot would visit churches to admire their beauty; in later years, he visited them for the sake of peace, contemplation, and spiritual refreshment (Pinion 31). Ambition seemed to deepen his sense of marital guilt and, in 1926, while visiting Rome with his brother and sister-in-law, Eliot surprised everyone by kneeling before Michelango's "Pieta." "Here was a spiritually humble, contrite man ritualizing his acceptance of a higher authority" (Pinion 34). According to Peter Ackroyd, Eliot had a sense of tradition and an instinct for order within himself and found the church and faith gave him this security within a life of frustrations and struggles (159-160). "He was aware of what he called 'the void' in all human affairs--the disorder, meaninglessness, and futility which he found in his own experience; it was inexplicable intellectually . . . and could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith" (Ackroyd 160). Eliot's faith continued to grow and on June 29, 1927, he was baptized in the Anglican-Catholic church. This great event in Eliot's life was done privately and behind closed doors. On the next day Eliot was confirmed by the Bishop (Ackroyd 162).
"Journey of the Magi," the first in a series of poems Eliot later grouped together as the Ariel Poems, was published in August of 1927 shortly after his baptism. Caroline Behr suggests that this poem reflects Eliot's state of mind in transition between his old and new faiths (33). As Lyndall Gordon suggests, "Journey of the Magi" is one part of Eliot's conversion story in that it tells about his being "ill-at-ease in the 'old dispensation' after his conversion" (37).
It has been reported that Vivienne was against his conversion and this added to their marital problems (Sharpe 116). In 1933, Eliot separated from Vivienne and then, in 1949, while working for Faber and Faber, Eliot met Valerie Fletcher, whom he would later marry. After hearing a recording of "Journey of the Magi," Fletcher had been drawn to Eliot and knew she had to get to know him (Ackroyd 298). From 1957 to his death on January 4, 1965, Eliot's life with Valerie Fletcher was happy and peaceful.
According to Ackroyd, "Thomas Stearns Eliot, in his last years, declared
that there had been only two periods of his life when he had been happy--during
his childhood, and during his second marriage" (13). Eliot's baptism and
writing of "Journey of the Magi" come in between these periods of happiness
during times of struggle and uncertainty.
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Then at dawn we came down to a temperate
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.
First Five Lines: The first five lines were "lifted from Lancelot Andrewes's Nativity Sermon of 1622, and modified"; Eliot happened to be himself steeped in Andrewes at the time . . . but basically he used them because he needed a second voice to precipitate the poetic drama. They must be understood as being read by, or to, the magus and thereby occasioning his own flow of memory" (Barbour 190-91). Return to Text.
Cities Hostile: According to Dean, these are "all places which remind the travellers, by their violent contrast, of the place of contentment they have deserted" ("Confrontation with Christianity" 76). Traveling through these forboding places, "Eliot's Magus hastens to end an unpleasant journey; what he 'regretted' is the vanishing of 'the silken girls bringing sherbet'" (Harris 840). Return to Text.
Temperate valley: Dean points out that the early morning descent into a "temperate valley" evokes three significant Christian events: "The nativity and all the attendant ideas of the dawning of a new era . . . the empty tomb of Easter . . . as well the image of the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness" ("Confrontation with Christianity" 77). Wohlpart adds that the Magi's dawn arrival is "symbolic of the new life attained from their penance" (57). Return to Text.
Beating the darkness: Dean notes Elizabeth Drew's view that "'beating the darkness' can refer to the triumph and victory of Christ, a conquering that could occur in the events of Christ's earthly life, or in His resurrection, or in His return in glory at the end of time" (Quoted in Dean, "Confrontation with Christianity" 77). Return to Text.
Three trees: To Dean, the image of the three trees "seems clearly to be a reference to the crosses of Calvary" ("Confrontation with Christianity" 78). Barbour writes, "It is appropriate that his [the Magus'] language . . . unwittingly evoke [sic] the Crucifixion" (195). Return to Text.
White horse: Dean refers to Robert Kaplan and Richard Wall's suggestion that "the white horse is 'perhaps a reference to the militaristic and conquering Christ of Revelation . . .'"; "However," he continues, "there is nothing in the poem to indicate that the horse is being ridden; on the contrary, it seems more natural to assume that the horse is riderless . . ." ("Confrontation with Christianity" 78). Dean also quotes Kaplan and Wall's speculation that the horse is symbolic of the "death of paganism under the onslaught of Christianity," and notes Nancy Hargrove's suggestion that "the horse's 'being old . . . perhaps represents the old dispensation that will fade away with Christ's birth'" (78). Return to Text.
Satisfactory: R. D. Brown writes that "the obvious meaning [of the word "satisfactory"] is 'expiatory,' payment for a debt or sin" (137). Barbour, however, sees a more complex connotation: "The parenthetical remark/gesture dramatizes a certain drawing back at the end into something between understatement and velleity. The key word is the ambiguous 'satisfactory,' emphasized by rhythm and position, which for us, though not the magus, evokes the Thirty Nine Articles, expiation, and the Atonement" (194). In addition, E. F. Burgess sees the word "satisfactory" as evidence that "every condition of prophecy was met, leaving the alienated magus . . . stranded, suspended between the realization and the consummation of God's plan" (36). Return to Text.
Old dispensation: Dean quotes
Geneviene Foster's comment that "The birth of the new era involves the
destruction of the old" ("Confrontation with Christianity" 79). Barbour
writes that "The Birth he [the magus] saw began the death of his old world,
old life, but did not, with the same certainty, give him anything new";
the magus is therefore "alienated from everything 'in the old dispensation'"
(195). Return to Text.
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Criticism of T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" suggests that the images of nature and conversion are representative of the ambiguity of the world. The images of nature are at times beautiful--as in the "fertile valleys" and "running streams"--but are also ominous and dark in other portions of the poem. Images of conversion are also both positive and negative, as they are intended to convey a sense of hope and uncertainty--just as conversion had left an enigmatic feeling in Eliot's own life.
Sean Lucy, in T. S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition, suggests that "Journey of the Magi" is a poem about the unclear nature of conversion. Reading the poem in the context of other religious poems, Lucy suggests that
Leonard Unger discusses "Journey of the Magi" in detail twice in his book T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns, both times in reference to the nature and conversion imagery. In the first instance, Unger compares both Eliot's and Conrad's use of the word "regret." Unger feels that their definition of the word is to "miss poignantly" and, in the case of Eliot, this would complement the theory of ambiguity in conversion (147). The Magi miss the "old dispensation" in which they were at ease before the birth of Christ. Unger also points out that "Images of smell in Eliot's later poetry . . . are for the most part references to the smell of growing things and of earth and sea . . . [and are similar to] the 'valley . . . smelling of vegetation' in 'Journey of the Magi"' (l80). He concludes that the smells of nature are important in all of Eliot's work and represent "the deepest and most intense kind of awareness" (181). In "Journey of the Magi" this awareness is of the vague nature of the world and the knowledge that conversion will be painful as well as rewarding.
Martin Scofield, in T. S. Eliot: The Poems, makes note of the fact that the three Ariel Poems, which includes "Journey of the Magi," should be read in the context of Eliot's baptism and confirmation. This poem is an attempt to describe, poetically, what this experience means:
According to Elizabeth Drew in T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry, nature and conversion are the foundations of the "Journey of the Magi." Drew maintains that the dominant feeling in the poem about conversion is faith without revelation and that "The meaning of the new birth is obscure, full of doubt, accompanied by pain, not joy, and perplexing in the extreme" (118-119). Her analysis of the conversion imagery is typified by statements like "a bewildering sense of paradox" and "great weariness and disillusionment" (121-122). These are not images of a joyous experience or conversion. They reflect the indefinite nature of a world in which positives and negatives often coalesce. Drew also discusses the inexactness of the nature imagery. To her, the positive nature imagery--the fertile valley and the trees, the old white horse galloping away in the meadow, the vine-leaves over the door of the tavern--speak of "hope and freedom and fruitfulness" (120-121). However, Drew also reflects on the grimmer images, noting "the hindrances of nature; the cold, the bad roads, the sore-footed camels 'lying down in the melting snow"' and "the implied vision of the three 'trees' on Golgotha" (120, 121). Drew's juxtaposition shows the ambiguity of the images and the poem itself.
As many critics point out, the three trees foreshadow Christ's crucifixion--on the one hand, a negative image relating to Christ's death but, on the other, a positive image relating to Christ's sacrifice for humanity. Many critics have demonstrated that the ambiguity of the nature and conversion imagery in "Journey of the Magi" is reflective of the author's view of the world as an inexact place.
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T.S. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi" describes the journey of the "Wise men from the East" towards Christ and thus, symbolically, towards Christianity. Many critics parallel the Magi's journey with Eliot's own journey in search of "satisfaction" in Christianity. Critics suggest that Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" focuses on the affirmation of Christ that comes from the Magi's journey towards faith through birth, death, and rebirth, a journey that parallels Eliot's own struggles with his faith.
Brian Barbour, in "Poetic Form in 'Journey of the Magi,'" approaches the events in T.S. Eliot's dramatic monologue as a journey of perplexity and spiritual anguish in search of "satisfactory" faith. Barbour suggests that Eliot's poem "presents two journeys related through paradox: it narrates the arduous physical journey and then dramatizes the even more difficult and uncomplete spiritual one" (193). The spiritual journey "leads us to the deepest perplexity and, indeed, alienation" (193). At the physical journey's end the spiritual perplexity remains. Referring to the "old dispensation" of birth and rebirth, Brian Barbour writes "The Birth he saw began the death of his old world, old life, but did not, with the same certainty, give him anything new" (195). The Magi are caught in the middle between birth and death, moving towards the center of the Christian mystery where death is the way to birth through Christ. Barbour's interpretation of the poem suggests that St. Matthew is "the audience that gives the poem its greatest richness and deepest meaning. His search for background information about Jesus is the poem's occasion, and speaker, audience, and occasion all cooperate to define the full poetic significance" (196).
T.S. Eliot's journey to faith is like that of the magus, a purposeful struggle to attain faith in God's power to save sinners. Michael Dean, in "'T.S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi': Confrontation with Christianity" focuses on a confrontation that Eliot creates between the reader and the theme. Dean begins with the "Christian allusions in the poem and will conclude with an examination of the purpose behind Eliot's use of these allusions: the creation of a confrontation between the reader and Eliot's affirmation of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ" (75). The imagery suggests that a "difficulty arises from the mixing of the old and new dispensations, as the Magus, transformed by the revelation at the end of his journey, lives on uncomfortably as a man of the new dispensation among people of the old" (79). T.S. Eliot, just like the old Magus, knows the difficult road one must travel in a spiritual pursuit of faith against those who scorn along the way. In Eliot's poem the magus tells us "I would do it again" in the same way Eliot would make that same bold statement (84). Dean goes on to say that he believes Eliot "challenges others, in such ways as writing 'Journey of the Magi,' to join him in that affirmation" (84).
In "The Sacrament of Penance in T.S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi,'" A. James Wohlpart focuses on a parallel between the three part structure of the poem and a reordering in the stages of the Sacrament of Penance to emphasize the idea of a continuing spiritual journey. Wohlpart concludes: "Instead of beginning with contrition and ending with satisfaction, an order which might connote fulfillment of the sacrament and an end to the process of perfection, Eliot opened with contrition in stanza one, moved on to satisfaction in stanza two, and then concluded with confession in stanza three, suggesting that the soul, in its journey towards Christ and heavenly perfection, akin to the journey of the Magi, can never rest in the certainty of perfection but must be continually engaged in the process of becoming perfect" (57). According to Wohlpart, "The journey becomes, then, not only a physical movement towards Christ, but also the first step in the Magi's spiritual progress as they truly regret their previous spiritual stasis" (56). This spiritual journey takes us in search of perfection, but in order to obtain perfection on a higher level, Christ's death is the only way that satisfaction can occur.
E. F. Burgess, in his Explicator article "T.S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi,'" bases the magi's "satisfactory" journey in conditions of a prophecy hundreds of years before. Burgess first notes that the Magi were not Kings but priests: "holy Zoroastrian astronomers who followed the signs of the heavens. 'Yonder Star' the Magi followed was a sign prophesied 600 years before by Zoroaster. The prophecy not only described the celestial occurrence, but also specifically named Bethlehem as the birthplace of the new prophet" (36). Burgess then offers a reinterpretation of the "satisfaction" image in the poem: "it simply means that every condition of the prophecy was met, leaving the alienated magus, a priest no more, secure in his knowledge of Zoroaster's truth, and in that knowledge stranded, suspended between the realization and the consummation of God's plan" (36). Burgess suggests that with the prophecy met, the old magus was satisfied in Zoroaster's truth.
At the end of Eliot's long and difficult journey he concludes his poem
with "I should be glad of another death," thus bringing"satisfactory" to
his search for a life of faith. The spiritual perplexity of the meaning
of birth, death, and rebirth is the journey that the magi and Eliot himself
underwent in their attempt to find a new faith. In the end, the magi moved
to the center of Christian faith and found that death is the way to rebirth.
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T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" was first published in 1927, the same year that "Eliot was received by baptism into the Anglican Church" (Basu 15). Critics suggest that the significance of Eliot's religious conversion cannot be understated for an analysis of "Journey of the Magi," as it recounts Eliot's personal conversion experience. While analyzing different aspects of the poem, the critics agree that Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" is about his own personal and spiritual conversion experience.
In "The Infirm Glory of the Positive Hour: Re-Conversion in 'Ash Wednesday,'" Melissa Eiles considers Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" as a beginning to Eliot's exploration of the theme of religious conversion. Eiles writes "The essence of a religious conversion . . . in Eliot's poetry is change--almost torturous intellectual and spiritual growth that pushes the soul into a conflict between its old life of sin and its new life of grace" (118). This process of conversion produces a new "convert," while only suppressing the material interests of the "old life"; the struggle between physical and spiritual worlds still continues (118). Eiles goes on to explain her view of Eliot's poem as an examination of the better understood "type of conversion: a gradual and bitter death to oneself and a growth into Christ" (119). Eliot's Magus engages in "a physical and spiritual journey to the . . . Christ Child and experiences conversion in the form of a spiritual death and rebirth" (119). Eliot's own journey to Christ and conversion was not without struggles between the physical world of life and the spiritual world of God. Eiles sees conversion as "vital" to Eliot's poem: "it is the difference between animals and men. Without conversion, man risks loss of passion and hollowness--both in life on earth and in life after death" (119).
In A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis, George Williamson analyzes Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" as a perpetual story of the process of conversion. In the poem, "one of the Magi recounts the journey to Christ," a journey that brought death to their "old life" and their "rebirth" to a new experience, the experience of conversion (164). Eliot uses symbols and images, significant to him, that "recur, charged with emotion," such as the "water-mill and the six ruffians," to bring connection and continuation to the journey (165). "The description of the journey--in nature from death to life--not only projects the inner struggle of the Magi, but foreshadows events to come in the life of Christ . . . " in the lives of the Magi and in Eliot's personal life as well (164). According to Williamson, Eliot has taken an old Bible story, added personal symbols and imagery, and changed it to reflect his personal "journey to Christ" (164).
In T.S. Eliot's Theory of Poetry: A Study of the Changing Critical Ideas in the Development of His Prose and Poetry, Rajnath explores Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" in relation to the metaphysical poets, focusing on the theme of discord between the physical and spiritual worlds. Rajnath holds that the similarity between Eliot and the metaphysical poets extends beyond the common theme of struggle between two worlds to similar religious experiences and expression of conversion within their poetry. The contradictory division "of body and soul that one finds in the metaphysicals . . . is at the very centre of Eliot's poetry" (152). Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" displays this "conflict between two lives, one worldly and the other Divine," placing him "in line with the metaphysicals, particularly Herbert" in its descriptions of the discomforts endured and the pleasures left behind when undertaking a spiritual journey "to glimpse the infant Christ" (152-53). Eliot's "Magi are simply caught up between two worlds and cannot decide whether they were led all the way for Birth or Death" (153). They realize their journey was to see "the birth of Christ," but not that it would cause a painful death to their old ways (153). "They fail to realize that Death which was so painful to them is the prerequisite of birth, the spiritual rebirth" (l53). Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" is an exploration of the spiritual battles fought while undergoing the religious experience of conversion.
In T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Ronald Bush agrees with other critics on the meaning of the "Journey of the Magi," and goes on to examine the influences of Eliot's borrowing from St. J. Parse and Lancelot Andrewes and their effect upon the poem. According to Bush, Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" is a dramatization of "the period in Eliot's life that followed his official conversion, when his old ways of thinking and feeling seemed irrevocably alien and his new life as a Christian existed more in intention than fact" (127). Eliot begins the poem by borrowing from a sermon by Andrewes and sets up a rhythm using elements from both Andrewes and Parse to lull the reader into a transcendence of reality. Eliot's adoption of Perse's syntax and style enhances the poem's "incantatory power" and produces "a Persean world of Imagination" (127). However, Eliot casts doubt upon the experience by mixing imagery from the "three realms of reference--the fictional frame, the correspondences of Christian typology, and his own deepest and most troublesome feelings" throughout the poem, thereby testing the significance of the experience (128). The poem "Journey of the Magi" is Eliot's testing of his conversion experience.
Regardless of the specific focus, critics agree that Eliot's "Journey
of the Magi" is about the personal and spiritual aspects of his religious
conversion experience. In "Journey of the Magi," Eliot displays the depth
to which his journey affected his life by relating his own conflicts with
conversion to the struggles of the original Magi on the first journey to
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Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Barbour, Brian M. "Poetic Form in 'Journey of the Magi."' Renascence: Essays on Value in
Basu, Tapan Kumar. "T. S. Eliot: In His Time and In Ours." T. S. Eliot: An Anthology of Recent
Behr, Caroline. T. S. Eliot: A Chronology of his Life and Works. New York: St.Martin's P,
Brown, R. D. "Revelation in T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi.'" Renascence:Essays on Value in
Burgess, E. F. "T. S. Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi.'" Explicator 42 (Summer 1984): 36.
Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.
Dean, Michael P. "Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi,' 24-25." Explicator 37 (Summer 1979): 9-10.
---. "T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi': Confrontation with Christianity." Xavier Review
Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Charles Scribner's
---. Poetry: A Modern Guide to its Understanding and Enjoyment. New York: Norton, 1959.
Eiles, Melissa A. "The Infirm Glory of the Positive Hour: Re-Conversion in Ash-Wednesday."
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot's New Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Harris, Daniel A. "Language, History, and Text in Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi.'" PMLA 95 (1980):
Lucy, Sean. T. S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.
Pinion, F. B. A T. S. Eliot Companion. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986.
Rajnath. T. S. Eliot's Theory of Poetry: A Study of the Changing Critical Ideas in the
Scofield, Martin. T. S. Eliot: The Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Sharpe, Tony. T. S. Eliot: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's P, 1991.
Unger, Leonard. T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1966.
Williamson, George. A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis. 2nd Ed.
Wohlpart, A. James. "The Sacrament of Penance in T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi.'"
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