The Story of the Magi (pronounced meijai) or Wise men from the Eastern World who came to pay honour to the baby Jesus Christ is told in the Bible; Mathew 2; in later Christian tradition followed here by Eliot were also regarded as kings, three in number. In this poem one of them recalls the pains of the journey, which symbolize the painfulness of all changes from one way of life to another. This form of poem is free verse, i.e. there is no set rhyme or meter.
The Magi undertook their long journey to Bethlehem from their native countries with a high spirit of anticipation but little did they know of the kind of hostile weather and the biting cold that they were about to encounter a few more provinces before reaching Bethlehem. It was a long and tiring journey draining every ounce of stamina and vitality required for a long mentally tormenting journey. The path they undertook for the long journey was full of ‘ups and downs’ and ‘sharps and bends’ that were extremely and equally matched to the prevailing weather of endless winter. It was in the middle of Winter that Jesus Christ was born, according to tradition, on 25th, December, and the Magi arrived at his birth place, Bethlehem in Judea (now Jordan), on 6th, January. The camels were inflicted with painful sores in every vulnerable part of the outer bodies including their feet and were unwilling to obey. They stubbornly laid down on the melting snow.
There were times that the Magi regretted in undertaking this painful journey of the cold biting winter. How they missed the summer palaces back in their native countries, on the slopes, the terraces and the silken girls; girls wearing silk and girls as soft as silk; who brought the sherbet. The camel men who cursed and grumbled ran away for not possessing their liquor and women. For lack of shelters, the night fires went out, the cities were hostile and the towns were unfriendly. The villages were dirty and the essential commodities were very expensive. Since they really experienced a hard time, the Magi finally decided to travel all night. Sleeping by turns, the voices of people who thought that their journey was foolish; also the voices of doubts in their own minds; sang in their ears. At the break of dawn they came to a temperate valley which was wet below the snowline which displayed the green and aroma of vegetation. A corner of human settlement where the strong running mountain turns the water mills endlessly throughout the day and night.
“Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver”; the three people playing dice. This little picture together with the three trees, the white horse, and the feet kicking wine skin (skin bags holding wine), is a good example of Eliot’s “imagist” method of presenting details like camera shots to build up an atmosphere. The three trees suggest the three crosses (Mathew 27:38), and the pieces of silver i.e. they foreshadow Jesus’ death. “But set down This set down This”; Eliot here breaks the rules of punctuation to emphasize ‘this’. i.e. the main idea of the poem which follows: Birth is like Death, because a new life means the end of old life, and its bitter agony. Unlike the old way of life and religion, the Magi were changed but the people they ruled were not and now seemed alien (foreign). The journey of the Magi was indeed painful and so was the changes caused by the birth of Jesus Christ. Seeing the foreigners clinging to their native gods, one of the Magi wished for another death to bring another and more complete change.