T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi
This Christmas poem is about the Epiphany and was created the very year of Eliot’s conversion to Christianity (Fleisner, 66). Therefore the theme of religion is an important one if we are to analyse the poem correctly. In the book of Ephesians in the Bible, Paul describes the rebirth of the world upon Christ’s death, emphasising the Ephesians’ new life (2:4-5). This theme of death and rebirth is present in the poem Journey of the Magi, which, I will argue, is structurally and internally divided into three stages; corresponding to the Sacrament of Penance: contrition (guilt), confession and satisfaction.
To understand this poem, one has to understand the impact that Christ had on the World. At the time of his birth, however, the known world was not stable; people worshipped many gods, and we get a full description of the way life was by the Magus who narrates his story of their journey to Bethlehem to witness the end of an era and the birth of a new one.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, "contrition is a penitent’s spiritual sorrow for the sins he has committed, and it necessarily includes hatred for such sins, as well as the determination to avoid them in the future." In the first stanza, this "spiritual sorrow" is apparent by the contrast Eliot uses, of the Magi’s difficult journey. In fact, the central focus of criticism has been on the journey; the "cold coming" (line 1) during "the worst time of the year" (line 2), emphasising the climatic statement of the stanza: "A hard time we had of it" (line 16). The Magus talks of their sorrowful past life of ease, the times they "regretted…the silken girls bringing sherbet" (lines 8-10), and in the same way that they are ‘physically’ moving towards Christ, they feel they are progressing spiritually, putting a personal ban on the sinful lives they have had. This act of contrition seems genuine because they are pressured by the "voices singing in [their] ears, saying/ That this was all folly" (lines 19-20). These are the voices of the camel men, the hostile cities and the unfriendly towns, voices that tempt the wise men to cease their foolish journey and fall, once again, into spiritual degeneration. In the end, the difficulty of the journey comes to remind the Magi of their previous life and thus urges them forward.
The second stanza moves into the third stage in the Sacrament: satisfaction, which is the obligatory penance that follows the confession of sins. In keeping with the first stanza which elaborates the difficulties of the journey, Eliot does not depict the primary aspect of satisfaction (the fulfilment of penance) in stanza two, but rather the secondary aspect, which, according to the Oxford Bible Dictionary is a "medicinal purpose…[assisting] the penitent to resist relapse into the same kind of...