In T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”, the concept of change and its effects are examined through numerous literary devices, such as volta, imagery, allusion, repetition, and symbolism. Three stanzas are used in this poem, and each represents a different stage in a change-making process.
The first stanza reflects on the journey to arrive at a change, as shown in the initial journey of the Magi to the birth of Jesus. The second stanza illustrates the change occuring, where the Magi reach their location they had been traveling to. Lastly, in the third stanza, the Magi reflects on his journey, as well as the change that he underwent. Overall, “Journey of the Magi” uses many literary devices to support the overall theme of change.
T.S. Eliot uses the first stanza of this poem to establish the hardships of the journey through much imagery, as well as extended metaphor.
The speaker describes “The ways deep and the weather sharp / The very dead of winter” (Eliot 4-5) to first establish the conditions under which the Magi are traveling. Imagery becomes very important, especially in this first stanza as the speaker continues to describe the weather and conditions “And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, / Lying down in the melting snow.” (Eliot 6-7) that the Magi had to endure to face the journey ahead. This image of winter is directly contrasted to the experiences of the Magi, “There were times we regretted / The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / And the silken girls bringing sherbet.” (Eliot 8-10), which depicts the Magi remembering their exquisite lives back in their palaces where they lived lavishly, but now that they are on this cold and hard journey, they miss it. This directly relates to the process of change that humans undergo at some point, the stage where the steps towards a desired change are being taken, but what lies ahead is unknown. The journey may be hard, but the journey has begun and there is no turning back. The diction of the quotation was also important, as it established one of the Magi as the speaker.
More imagery is used “And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, / And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, / And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly” (Eliot 12-14) to illustrate the difficulties along the way of this journey, showing how they missed their belongings and old life, but they had decided to embark on this journey. Also, the speaker uses repetition of the first word in this set of complaints about the journey to create a rhythmic effect that makes the difficulties of the journey seem greater. At the end of the first stanza, the speaker makes the claim, “With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly” (Eliot 19-20) showing that the speaker had doubts about what lies ahead, which occurs when working towards a change. However, the dynamic shifts dramatically from the first stanza to the second as they reach their destination.
A transition occurs from the first stanza to the second stanza where the Magi reach their destination, which is supported by the overall theme of change. A major shift, or volta occurs, as the Magi close in on their destination and the weather switches, indicating a change for the speaker. Extended metaphor and symbolism become evident as the Magi come to a place that is a great improvement from what they had been in before, “Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley / Wet, below the snowline, smelling of vegetation” (Eliot 21-22).
The weather that has been used in both the first and second stanzas is a symbol for overall change as the weather shifts dramatically as the speaker reaches his destination. This is also extended metaphor, as the dismal weather of the first stanza is contrasted by the beautiful climate of the second stanza to parallel the change that the Magi have reached, as well as the overall theme of change present. Beautiful imagery is also offered, “With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness / And three trees on the low sky / And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow” (Eliot 23-25), which shows the Magi have just about reached their destination, which showcases the change that the magi have underwent. Lastly, an allusion to the bible are offered “Finally the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory” (Eliot 31) which shows that the Magi finally arrived to their destination. This allusion also contributes to the overall theme of change, as it shows the journey that the speaker had to go through to get to this change, much like humans do. A final volta occurs at this point, shifting into a later time in the speaker’s life. The speaker reflects on life after the change, as well as contemplating what really occurred during the change after this final shift.
This final volta lets the reader know that the change has been completed, and the change that was undergone is now being contemplated. This is often the case for humans as well, as after a change occurs, it is often wondered what could have been. Symbols of birth and death are presented, “This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?/ There was a birth, certainly” (Eliot 35-36) where birth and death both represent change at the same time, especially in the life of the magi. Birth refers to a new opportunity because of a change, and likewise death refers to the ending of a previous way of life. This is true for the Magi as when they returned to their kingdoms, everything was different.
They were sure a birth had occurred, which is another allusion to the bible and the birth of christ, which represents the change in their life, but they also experienced a death. This was a death in their old way of life, an emotional death. When the change was completed, “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” (Eliot 40-42) everything was completely different from when they left, as they had been changed. Throughout the poem, Eliot uses the story of the Magi’s journey to the birth of Jesus, as well as many literary devices to accomplish an overall goal of change. In the first stanza, imagery and extended metaphor are used to depict the period working towards a change. Allusion and volta are very helpful to the second stanza of the poem to describe the change taking place in the life of the Magi. Lastly, symbolism is used to show the effects of change in the third stanza.
Overall, Eliot uses many literary devices to reach his overarching theme of change throughout “Journey of the Magi”.