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 conversion will be painful as well as rewarding.
Martin Scofield, in T. S. Eliot: The Poems, makes note of the fact that the three Ariel Poems, which includes “Journey of the Magi,” should be read in the context of Eliot’s baptism and confirmation. This poem is an attempt to describe, poetically, what this experience means:
Eliot clearly chose the magus as a persona because he represented the experience of being caught “between two worlds”, of having had an intimation of faith but now being left “No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”–the experience of conversion without the full benefit of assured faith. (146)
In discussing the magi’s reactions after the birth of Christ, Scofield suggests that the tone is deliberately anti-climactic and that the reason for the Magi’s lack of animated reaction to Christ’s birthplace is that the loss of the old ways has put them into a world that has lost its meaning (146).
According to Elizabeth Drew in T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry, nature and conversion are the foundations of the “Journey of the Magi.” Drew maintains that the dominant feeling in the poem about conversion is faith without revelation and that “The meaning of the new birth is obscure, full of doubt, accompanied by pain, not joy, and perplexing in the extreme” (118-119).
Her analysis of the conversion imagery is typified by statements like “a bewildering sense of paradox” and “great weariness and disillusionment” (121-122). These are not images of a joyous experience or conversion. They reflect the indefinite nature of a world in which positives and negatives often coalesce. Drew also discusses the inexactness of the nature imagery. To her, the positive nature imagery–the fertile valley and the trees, the old white horse galloping away in the meadow, the vine-leaves over the door of the tavern–speak of “hope and freedom and fruitfulness” (120-121).
However, Drew also reflects on the grimmer images, noting “the hindrances of nature; the cold, the bad roads, the sore-footed camels ‘lying down in the melting snow”‘ and “the implied vision of the three ‘trees’ on Golgotha” (120, 121). Drew’s juxtaposition shows the ambiguity of the images and the poem itself.
As many critics point out, the three trees foreshadow Christ’s crucifixion–on the one hand, a negative image relating to Christ’s death but, on the other, a positive image relating to Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. Many critics have demonstrated that the ambiguity of the nature and conversion imagery in “Journey of the Magi” is reflective of the author’s view of the world as an inexact place.