Criticism of T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" suggests that the images of nature and conversion are representative of the ambiguity of the world. The images of nature are at times beautiful--as in the "fertile valleys" and "running streams"--but are also ominous and dark in other portions of the poem. Images of conversion are also both positive and negative, as they are intended to convey a sense of hope and uncertainty--just as conversion had left an enigmatic feeling in Eliot's own life.
Sean Lucy, in T. S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition, suggests that "Journey of the Magi" is a poem about the unclear nature of conversion. Reading the poem in the context of other religious poems, Lucy suggests that
"Journey of the Magi," "A Song for Simeon" and "Animula" . . . are all poems of the Christian perspective, they are all poems of acceptance and of resignation to a destiny which is the only possible answer, but which seems to the protagonists, as human beings, almost impossibly hard and painful. They are purgatorial poems. (145)
Here, Lucy uses "acceptance" in the same sentence as "hard," "painful," and "resignation" to demonstrate the grayness of the world. Nothing is black and white; even the glory of the birth of Christ may have negative consequences to some people: "'The Magi' and 'A Song for Simeon' show little of that high joy which the birth of Our Lord can often inspire even in the most austere artists" (148). The Magi don't feel any of that "high joy" because their comfortable place in the world has been changed and they no longer feel at peace.
Leonard Unger discusses "Journey of the Magi" in detail twice in his book T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns, both times in reference to the nature and conversion imagery. In the first instance, Unger compares both Eliot's and Conrad's use of the word "regret." Unger feels that their definition of the word is to "miss poignantly" and, in the case of Eliot, this would complement the theory of ambiguity in conversion (147). The Magi miss the "old dispensation" in which they were at ease before the birth of Christ. Unger also points out that "Images of smell in Eliot's later poetry . . . are for the most part references to the smell of growing things and of earth and sea . . . [and are similar to] the 'valley . . . smelling of vegetation' in 'Journey of the Magi"' (l80). He concludes that the smells of nature are important in all of Eliot's work and represent "the deepest and most intense kind of awareness" (181). In "Journey of the Magi" this awareness is of the vague nature of the world and the knowledge that...