In the usual sanitized Christmas story, three gold-crowned “wise men” ride camelback toward Bethlehem, faithfully following a bright, guiding star. Certain of their destination, unswerving yet humble, they take their places in the “Silent Night” tableau. In his “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot challenges this idealized depiction and—while avoiding cynicism—offers a more realistic interpretation of the original Christ-seekers.
According to Eliot scholar John A. Timmerman, the poem’s three stanzas depict a journey toward, an arrival, and a journey away. Each leg of this journey has its difficulties and its value: journeying toward Christ comes not with eager anticipation but frustration, arrival signifies not final perfection but temporary satisfaction, and journeying away is both a birth and a death. In this way, by maintaining a balance of two contrarieties in each stanza, “Journey of the Magi” suggests that Eliot views Christianity as a journey of gradual, difficult discovery rather than sudden, glorious epiphany.
In the poem’s first stanza, Timmerman explains, Eliot’s depiction of a “journey” was particularly influenced by the poem and treatise Dark Night of the Soul written by the sixteenth-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. In light of this, “Journey of the Magi” can be read as a journey through a dark night of the soul – both the Magi’s journey and Eliot’s own. This journey, for Eliot, is not as easy as traditional Christianity may suggest (just a matter of praying a “sinner’s prayer” or going to confession, for instance). Rather, the journey of “coming” to Christ is a painful process of purification.
The purification process tests the Magi – as well as Eliot and any others journeying through a “dark night” – with temptation and isolation. Thinking back to their “summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet,” the Magi feel tempted to long for their former, materialistic way of life and question the purpose of their journey (ll. 9-10). Eliot’s choice of “silken girls” and “sherbet” alludes directly to Dark Night of the Soul, which says that in the early stages of the “dark night” God’s intention for the soul is “that He may quench and purge its sensual desire…allow[ing] it not to find attraction and sweetness in anything whatsoever.” The Magi then experience abandonment as they watch their “camel men cursing and grumbling / And running away, and wanting their liquor and women” (ll. 11-12). As the camel men opt out of the spiritual pilgrimage in favor of the very material things (“liquor and women”) that so tempt the Magi, it takes all the moral fortitude they can muster to persist in their journey. And they must persist by themselves, for, as Timmerman observes, “no longer is there a corporate story of salvation; now only the individual quest remains.” This statement applies more broadly to Eliot’s view that pursuing Christ is an “individual quest” of purifying and persisting in oneself.
What’s more this “individual quest” takes a great length of time, emphasized by Eliot’s repetition of the words “and” and “time” in the first stanza. In the second half of this stanza, he uses the word “and” eleven times with four of those occasions forming an anaphora: “And running away…/ And the night-fires… / And the cities… / And the villages…” (ll. 12-15). This list expresses the Magi’s building exasperation with their journey and with themselves for undertaking it. The word “time,” a key word in “Journey of the Magi” recurs three times in the first stanza, a significant number since there are three Magi and since the number three often represents wholeness or completeness. This threefold repetition suggests that, while pursuing Christ, the journey through the “dark night” might wholly, completely consume one’s time. Each time the word “time” appears in this stanza, it occurs in a blunt line with a nostalgic, melancholic tone. First, it comes embedded in a quote from a Lancelot Andrewes sermon that calls the time of the Magi’s journey “just the worst time of the year” (l. 2). In the next two instances, the Magus says that “there were times we regretted” and “a hard time we had of it” (ll. 8, 16). Enjambment draws a reader’s attention to these lines, suggesting there were times when Eliot, like the Magi, regretted and had a hard time with his own journey toward Christ.
In the second stanza, Eliot explores the concept of time further, as he has the Magi visualize Christ’s death and apocalyptic return before they even visualize his birth. In the middle of this stanza, each line alludes to symbols of Christ’s future: the “running stream” refers to Christ’s description of himself as “living water” (John 4:10), the “three trees” refer to Christ’s crucifixion, the “old white horse” refers to the apocalypse, the “tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel” refers to Christ’s description of himself as the “true vine” (John 15:1), and the “empty wine-skins” refer to the new dispensation Christ brings (Mark 2:22, ll. 23-28). By placing Christ’s entire life, death, and return in the landscape leading up to his birth, Eliot suggests that glimpses of Christ’s ending are visible even in his beginning. As Timmerman puts it, “from the eternal point of view, the incarnation also held in it, at that very moment, the crucifixion and the resurrection. From the temporal point of view, there was only a birth, but also, as adumbrated by the imagery of stanza two, there was the imminence of the prophesied death.” Conceptually, for Eliot, any soul on a spiritual journey can perhaps view glimpses of the past, present, and future, endings and beginnings, life and death.
Although the Magi are witnesses to this biblical imagery, “there was no information” in those images (l. 29). Along the journey through a “dark night,” Eliot suggests, one’s surroundings do not point logically or scientifically to a destination. There are no comprehensible road signs, maps, or Global Positioning Systems. Despite this absence of mental information, there is a presence of spiritual satisfaction. For, upon “Finding the place” of Christ’s incarnation, the Magi nonchalantly remarks that “it was (you may say) satisfactory” (l. 31). Regarding this almost sacrilegious understatement, Timmerman says that “the word satisfactory has been an enigma in Eliot criticism, for it seems so profoundly to understate the event, or even, perhaps, to evidence disappointment with it. That may be. They found a place—merely a rude stable—and not a full understanding of the event captured in that stable.”
Eliot perhaps chose the word “satisfactory” because of its many possible meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary offers four definitions of satisfactory:
- theologically “serving to make satisfaction or atonement for sin”
- legally “serving to satisfy a debt or obligation”
- rhetorically “serving merely to satisfy the inquirer or objector; merely plausible,”
- logically “sufficient for the needs of the case, adequate”
These definitions enrich the line’s meaning so that, while its tone conveys disappointment, its content suggests deep theological, legal, and philosophical fulfillment. In this line, Eliot posits, in keeping with his Christian realism, that in all practicality “finding the place” of fulfillment, whether that place is literally the manger or the more transcendental “still point” that “Burnt Norton” describes, may come with both emotional disappointment and spiritual satisfaction, as if an emotional nadir can and even should coexist with a spiritual zenith.
In the third and final stanza of “Journey of the Magi,” the Magus reflects on the journey from many years later, indicated by the stanza’s opening line: “All this was a long time ago, I remember” (l. 32). Their reflections further explore the strange satisfaction expressed in the second stanza. First, the Magus says of the journey that he “would do it again,” because, in Timmerman’s words, however painful and long it may be, “the end of the journey is spiritual, the locating of a satisfactory point from which one may begin again” (l. 33). At this point, the Magus speaks in the past tense, saying that for a time “There was a Birth, certainly / We had evidence and no doubt” (ll. 36-37). Traditional Christian doctrine holds that, upon conversion, Christ is ever present for the believer, promising his followers to be “with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Through the Magi, however, who return to live among an “alien people clutching their gods,” Eliot argues that humans have the agency to move toward and away from Christ, to set down and pick up spirituality (l. 42). He finds this agency satisfactory, however, concluding that although “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,” he nonetheless “should be glad of another death” (ll. 38-39, 43). By keeping death, interpreted as both a literal death at the end of life and a spiritual “dying to self” during life, in view even at birth, Eliot believes humans might face life and death with some sense of peace or “satisfaction.”
Regarding life and death, the God of the Bible famously told the Israelites: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deut. 39:19). But, Eliot, with his unique approach to Christianity, might recommend that the Christian choose life and death, because both are realities and because even Christ himself chose both, as the second stanza of “Journey of the Magi” depicts. How, though, can one be satisfied with life and death? Perhaps the answer lies in the journey toward and away from the manger scene rather than the scene itself. Timmerman confirms: “the paradox consists of the fact that this unsatisfactory place satisfies entirely. It is the event, the quo of the journey, that is significant, not the place itself”. This is the heart of Eliot’s satisfactory spirituality – the ability to journey with a sense of acceptance for the realities of coming and going, of birth and death.