Christmas theme is the subject matter of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. It starts with one of the three Magus’ narrating to us the story long after the event has happened; the Magi symbolizing the three wise men of the east who come to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ, the birthing also of a new religion – Christianity. The speaker tells of the weariness that overcame them during their journeying through the ardous terrain, bleak and dreary and bitingly cold, they had to traverse on camel-backs to come to their place of Nativity, a place where their search for a new faith has led them to.
In this quest, after they set out on their journey, the travails they face passing through the cold desert and rough landscapes, their sore-footed irritable camels becoming almost unmanageable, and at the villages where they have to halt for rest, the shack-owners charging exhorbitant rates making them decide to travel the whole night in the dark, only occasionally managing to take a nap – all these and more – make the pilgrims wonder as to whether their decision to undertake the journey was wrong, an act in “folly” in the first place? They wistfully ruminate on the pleasures of the summer palaces on the hillside slopes on the terraces of which, they made merry upon being served with a glass of sherbet at the hands of beautiful maidens draped in silk. But now with no turning back, all they can do is to continue.
Nearing their journey’s end, they finally come through a valley of wet snow, unlike those hard at below freezing point they had crossed, to the outskirts of a city where hostilities of Nature seem to be easing out; they can smell of vegetation, hear the sweet sound of a running brook, and a water-mill telling of human dwelling, just as the night is breaking into dawn. There they pass “the three trees on a low sky”, probably being laden with clouds symbolic of doubt, and the vision of three three trees are a portent of the thee crosses on Calvery, those of Christ and the two thieves. The old white horse is an evocative image of Christ the conqueror riding on a white horse on his second coming, that is, of his mission of redeeming mankind.
Further on they come to a tavern shaded with vine-leaves to find three men engaged, talking in low tones with furtive glances, gambling and bawdily drinking. But all this they are unable to understand as a conspiracy being thatched, and so they moved on. These are all allusions to the Communion in the tavern’s leaves, to the betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver, to the contumelies faced by Christ before Crucifixion, and to the soldiers dicing for the robes of Christ at the Crucifixion.
Continuing their journey, the pilgrims at evening arrive to their place of Nativity, in time to witness the birth of Christ, and to the birthing also of a new faith. But somehow this arriving at their destination with all the hardships undergone along the journey is not one of exultation, but is only “satiafactory”. In the following lines we learn the why of it: why devoid of exuberance and not one of satiation as it should have been.
The narrator explains that this reminiscing is of an event that happened a long while back in time, and now, if necessary, he would do it all over again, “but set down/ This set down / This:”, the emphatic tone implying almost certainly to his now prior knowing of the conspiracy, this “killing” of Jesus, he will ‘set down’, that is, not let happen, and quizzically wonders
“were we led all the way for
Birth or Death?”
“I have seen birth and death” of Christ; this, the Magus says in retrospective terms, and after having witnessed Christ’s resurrection he has achieved belief in Incarnation, believed to be impossible in their old faith. They cling on to old faith which is still a part of their lives, and which Christ has come to sweep away, but the impact of the experience of ‘witnessing’ has rendered his usual pleasures derived from observing the religion of the old, to which they would even now return in memory, as kingdoms in meaninglessness. The narrator feels that his protracted life has already undergone a prelimonary death. Their gods, whom they held in belief, now appear as alien gods. And he now wishes for another “death” for his final deliverance.
For it is only through the “death” of his old religious faith and myths that he can be born into or converted into the Christian faith, and this is the deliverance that he is now devoutly wishing for.