Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Analysis of "The Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot

Original poem reprinted online here: "The Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot
More information about the Poet:  T.S. Eliot





I know I'm out of my league in analyzing this poem.  I have a feeling that I need to know more about Christian allusions and T.S. Eliot to truly understand this poem.  It's not like there aren't good analysis of this poem already:

Shmoop
Modern American Poetry

I only link to these.  I haven't read them at all. I just know that the two above are the most legitimate of analysis sites.  Why haven't I read them?  My analysis of this poem will not be better, but it will be my own.  Whatever conclusions may come of it, regardless of right or wrong, will be what I think at this time.  But I did like about not reading these, I only read the first sentence of the Shmoop one and it reaffirmed my belief.

This poem portrays the journey of the three wise men as they go and greet the newly born Christ.  However, if you didn't get the allusion, then I don't think it's a big deal.  The focus in this poem is the journey that the speaker goes through, and to what end the goal is achieved.

"'A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of year / For a journey, and such a long journey:"  The colon will play a big part in this poem in order to define or list what is currently there or what is felt.  Lists will play a big part.  But first, this setting tells more of the mindset of this speaker than the time of year -- the speaker is in the midst of a "long journey" or is the speaker looking back on the long journey -- the past tense really messes with the point of view:

     The ways deep and the weather sharp,
     The very dead of winter.'
     And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
     Lying down in the melting snow.

And the scene doesn't get any better -- there is something gritty about the language here -- "very dead of winter" and the description of the camels emphasis the line, "There were time we regretted" as a concept line that oversees the poem; however, to the concept of the poem, the regret goes to these lines:

     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

Gritty, or rather more realistic.  Yes, there's regret on something physical and simple in the summer, but then there's the overall discussion of the "camel men" somewhat like the speaker wanting the liquor and women -- physical and immediate satisfaction.  The lines even go more expansive:

     And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
     And the cities hostile and the town unfriendly    
     And the villages dirty and charging high prices:    
     A hard time we had of it.

And note how the anaphora of "and" expands the poem outward from "fires" to cities" and "villages" -- the wanderers overstay their welcome and they are belligerent, but there's a sense of self awareness of this with the last line of the stanza, "That this was all folly."  Self-awareness that what they are doing might be wrong, but also that the journey itself could be a "folly."

The backdrop shifts with a changing of scene, "Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,"  Note the immediate transfer of location from village of "liquor and women" to "smelling of vegetation,"  The more this place is described, the more metaphorical the scene gets, "water-mill beating the darkness" and "three trees on the low sky."  And even though the surrounding hints of the divine, and they would go back to there ways, "we came to a tavern" but "there was no information, and so we continued."

But the real kicker of the second stanza is the last line, "Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory."  Finding the "lord" is a satisfactory moment?  The speaker had more emotion in the beginning of the journey regretting the summers and perhaps the winter, and so the apathy with this line foreshadows the "reason" that the third stanza for the apathy.

The speaker is indeed looking back on his journey and asserts, "I would do it again" but " set down / This set down / This"  The repetition of "set down" and "this" feels like the speaker is trying to ground the divine, and ground his experience, but actually it's more to pontificate:

     [...] 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;

Here starts the inner struggle for the higher metaphor.  Is what they did more representational of understanding birth or death?  How the speaker describes his journey is in "realistic" terms by the use of gritty images and sinful wants -- it's something I relate to as a person, but did they (the magi) accomplish the lofty higher metaphor goal?

     [...]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.

Here's the tricky thing about this line, when the magi return to their lands they have knowledge of the divine -- but is it true or not?  Back in their kingdoms the magi note, "with an alien people clutching their gods."  How hard is it to see your people clutch to "false idols" when they know the "truth" and could do nothing about it (yes, impose a divine order, but this is not the point).  All their people, theoretically, will go to Hell for their disbelief; meanwhile, the magi only have, "Death, our death" a hard and bitter agony for them.  Their generosity affords them the knowledge and this knowledge can only afford them bitterness.

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