Analysis of The Magi by Patrick Fernando


By Francis Helminski - Own work, Public Domain,


Patrick Fernando (1931 -1983) - a Sri Lankan poet who won international recognition – is considered as one of the accomplished poets in Sri Lanka writing in English. Most of his subject of writing were people, things and places the poet had been in close contact with. read more…


Background Information

The Magi is a biblical allusion referring to a three skilled magicians, astrologers. According to Wikipedia, the Magi appear solely in the Gospel of Matthew, which states they were "wise men" who came "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews".

According to historical records, on their pursuit after the star beacon, they were inquired by the King Herod. He was curious about the new born king of the Jews. He pretended to be happy and showed the way to Bethlehem and asks them to report back if they actually find him. However, the angels of the Lord warned the Magi about king’s plan to kill the baby Jesus; so they return their home in a different route.

Patrick Fernando finds the seed to his poem possibly by looking at a picture of the Magi in a Christmas card and making some practical suggestions in an inquiring tone about the traditional readings about history in Christianity.

The poem seems to excavate the real point of view of the Magi. Their expectations vs the reality is shown; they must have expected a divine representation at Bethlehem, but they saw something far below ordinary. The poem is in a way of affronting to the tradition, a warning which the teaching can be misleading when covered with honour.

Title image should be the traditional humble cow-shed where the bay Jesus born and the star shining above with the Magi around the cradle with their gifts. The poem written as a third person point of view speculating something that might have really happened there.

The poem is a bit long, let us examine stanza by stanza:


The Magi - (Reflection on a Christmas Card)


They were not fools. they did not rush: studied the latest

map and chart,

then set out, achieved a journey safe and quick.

Yet each suffered a little fever spreading from the gifts a


he had not brought a thing more richly symbolic.


they- the Magi

he - the baby Jesus

The Magi regrets that the baby Jesus is not what they have expected him to be. He is just an ordinary child of poor parents born in a cow-shed! The slant rhyme, irregular line length and enjambment shows a confused start to the poem stating the mental state of the Magi, who expected a divine representation but regret to see what they have seen.


Tested at the palace gates with a simple temptation,

these, illustrious in their power over powers of darkness,

failed. Their unhesitant pleasure at the king’s reception

seemed in retrospect, connivance with the barbarous.


Their power is overpowered by power of darkness, the cunning plot of the king. He could plant the seed of suspicion in the mind of the Magi. They found pleasure in the ceremonious gestures and respect poured upon them. Their ego must have been nursed by them. Poet seems to be realistic about the nature of human ego. The stanza consists of equal size lines and perfect rhyming scheme (ABAB) might be suggesting that the Magi meets the social expectations which can satisfy them.


The threshold was dark and smelled of animals. Bending


anointed heads, and sure that they were wrong, they

trooped into the cradle light

announcing and inquiring. The mother’s insufficient surprise

was painful persuasion that the place was right.


visual, kinaesthetic imagerythey trooped into the cradle light

alliteration- painful persuasion

oxymoronpainful persuasion

The Magi enters the threshold with suspicion but they have to accept that the place is right by the gesture of the mother. Irregular length sentences again but perfect rhyme ABAB might show the contrast between the truth and the expectations.


Yet outward poise remained, though their minds like a

stricken eagle

exchanged exalted wheeling for clumsy flap and tumble to


from a man who stooped hammering a bed and bowed and

a girl

who did not even hint that the visit was an honour.


simile- like a stricken eagle is a perfect example of their ego that is hurt.

Humorous, the Magi were hostile by the clumsy behaviour of the man and the disrespectful behaviour of the mother, Mary.


Younger, these there might well have seized an obvious


and hastened home converted to preach rebellion.

Their gifts lay formal on the floor, speeches too

were weak, admirable pose destroyed by nervous diction.


The disappointment of the Magi is obvious, but they are there with a divine purpose, they are to carry the message of a rebellion to the world. However, it is ironic that their gifts lay idle on the floor and their speeches were far away from an admirable diction which is a portrayal of their mind-set.


That perhaps was due to weariness; they were far from


but old, classical, serene, also self-critical.

They simply could not laugh it off, this single indiscretion

of letting their glory be lured to slaughter in a hovel.


The poet tries to be rational here. The Magi might have behaved in such a clumsy way merely because of weariness as they are old and after a long journey. On the other hand, they might have been in a battle against their glory and ego vs the bitter reality.


But we’ve avenged their shame; in final plenty simplified

the undeserved journey from certitude to disquiet

into three peaceful presbyters taking and evening

ride, favoured by friendly sunset with perfect silhouette.


The poet shows what we have really done to cover up the journey of the Magi. We have added an aesthetic beauty to it and made their journey a glorified one.


And gone is the girl unique, young and secret mother,

leaving a gilded matrix garlanded with vows;

with her man, the shy and shuffling carpenter,

stature like the founder of a proud archducal house.


The stanza starts with ‘And’ to contrast the idea in the previous stanza. The line ‘leaving the glided matrix garlanded with vows’ might refer to the noble deed the mother has done, referring the matrix to the baby Jesus. The mother, Mary and her husband is described here. Their outer appearance is described as a goddess and a son of an emperor.


Still, it is unwise to have a different notion of the episode,

to think, for instance, that the Magi died returning

from Bethlehem a shock, or that they hastily rods

back into ancestral wisdom for refuge, repenting


The poet tells the reader that it is unwise to think rationales like the Magi were dead on their return or returned repenting over their unsuccessful journey, which might upset all the history, reminding the readers not to reach too much of extreme ends in religious matters. But, he is obviously critical about the mental manacles that hinder people thinking beyond what is shown in the lines of historical records.


of their unmeant unthinkable affront against tradition.

for Epiphany left ambiguous will strike too hard

our wise old man feasting on self-celebration.

Even the young should keep strictly to the picture in the card.


The stanza again is the enjambment of the previous stanza. The line ‘unmeant unthinkable affront against tradition’ might suggest that a king has a traditional look expected by the society. (which is not found by the Magi) However, this reality surely enhances the holy image of the Jesus Christ as he appeared into the world in a humble cow-shed but destined to be a king.

Poet stresses that it is unwise to think that though the Magi understands the truth and they celebrate the true king’s arrival, the dark realities engulfed and germinated might have prevented them from understanding nor seeing the real-truth.

Poet implores that the young people should stick to the picture, not thinking beyond which would make them confused like the Magi - Ironical.


They must remember the unsuspecting hands of children

cut deep with baubles pressed and broken.


However, the poet warns of the repercussions of blind following of a religion which might create a generation rationally and intellectually blunt. In a way poet tries to express that if the religious histories become unimaginable or far beyond normality, people might start suspecting it especially the younger generation. He might suggest that the truth and reality actually enhances the glory of Jesus Christ than fabricated things to enhance his glory. This in a way is common to any religion.

You may read Patrick Fernando’s  Analysis of The Fisherman Mourned by his wife here.

By writing this analysis, we had no intention to criticize any religion nor its context. If you find any improper explanation, please let us know to revise them. This analysis is written due to a request done by a student as it is a bit hard to find analysis on post-colonial Sri Lankan literature. Please share the post if you find it useful to others.




Post a Comment