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

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.

Dive in

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?

Useful Links:

“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.

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.

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.


Dive In written by
Start here: