T.S. Eliot (1888–1965)
Explanatory Notes not covered in Poetry Archive
Title: The Magi (from the Latin for “wise men”) first appear in the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. They come from “the east,” guided by a bright star, to Bethlehem, to pay homage to Jesus, at the place of his birth. Later accounts fill out the story, employing various legends and some historical speculation. There are three Wise Men: Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. In some accounts, they are kings; in others, astrologers. They arrive just after the birth of Christ, and they bring with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh, precious gifts, to mark the birth of the Messiah, the King of the Jews. Line 5: The “dead of winter,” in that Christ was born on December 25.
Lines 21-23: Winter gives way to spring, as the Magi come closer to the site of Jesus’ birth.
Line 24: The “three trees” foreshadow the crucifixion of Christ on the cross, flanked by two criminals, also being crucified.
Line 25: The horse foreshadows the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, figures from the Book of Revelation, the last book of The New Testament. They herald the arrival of the Apocalypse, when God will cast judgment on the human race and grant salvation to the devout. The first of the horses is white.
Line 27: The “dicing” foreshadows the actions of the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus then rolled dice to determine who would get Christ’s robe. The “silver” foreshadows the disciple Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, whom he identified to the Roman soldiers, who paid him 30 pieces of silver.
Line 43: Having apparently converted to Christianity, after their journey to Bethlehem, the Magus who narrates the story yearns for the death which presages the soul’s immortality.