“The Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot

Background:  Eliot (1888-1965) was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, into a distinguished New England family; his mother was a poet.  Eliot was educated at Harvard University, the Sorbonne, and the University of Oxford.  He became a resident of London in 1915, and in 1927 became a naturalized British citizen and was confirmed in the Church of England.  Between 1915 and 1919 Eliot worked several jobs, including those of teacher, bank clerk, and assistant editor of the literary magazine Egoist.  He quickly distinguished himself as a poet and a critic.  Eliot is best know for his poem The Wasteland (1922), which was published in five parts.  His first important piece, however, was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), published when the poet was twenty-seven.  Later, he produced poems such as Ash Wednesday (1930), The Rock (1934), and Four Quartets (1943), which is generally considered by critics to be Eliot’s best poem.  Eliot received many awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.  Eliot also wrote plays and prose works, including The Idea of a Christian Society (1940) and Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948).

To what does the term, “magi,” (359) in the title of the poem refer?  What is the mood that the poem sets up with the first sentence?  What is behind the expression of “regret” (in line 8)?  Why did they prefer, “at the end,” to travel all night and with voices saying it was all folly?  Why was it “dawn” when they found the “temperate valley”?  Why was “the place,” once they found it, “satisfactory”?  Even though the narrator declares, a long time later, that the journey would be undertaken again, he raises a perplexing question.  What is the relationship between birth and death?  What did that birth and death have to do with their birth and death?  Why was it “bitter agony”?  Why were they no longer at easy in their kingdoms?  What does the last line mean?  What does this poem have to do with a search for value and meaning?