Briefly stated, William Butler Yeats’ The Magi is a poem about people who, upon reaching old age, or perhaps just older age, turn to God and the spiritual world for fulfillment and happiness. We are told in the footnote to this poem that, after writing The Dolls, Yeats looked up into the blue sky and imagined that he could see "stiff figures in procession". Perhaps after imagining these figures, Yeats debated within himself whom these pictures could represent. Yeats then went on to write The Magi, a poem which is full of symbolism, a literary technique that he greatly valued.
In the first two lines of the poem, Yeats writes "Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye, / In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones". Yeats is saying that when he looks into the blue sky, towards heaven above, he is reminded of all those people who have spent their lives "playing the game". These people have achieved great success and have many wonderful things, such as their "stiff, painted clothes," but still they feel as if their lives are incomplete. Despite everything they own and the pride they feel in what they have accomplished, they are not quite happy with their lives as a whole.
The fourth line of the poem, "With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones," clarifies for me that Yeats is talking about people of an older generation. He is certainly not talking about unsatisfied twenty- or even thirtysomethings. Yeats uses simile in this line to describe faces that are well worn. These faces belong to people who have experienced the stresses and strains of life. They are no longer vibrant and distinct, but are instead bland and unremarkable. These are people who ...
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...and successful and are turning to God for solace. They are choosing to honor and revere him in the hopes of finding everlasting peace and happiness.
Perhaps Yeats wrote this poem out of frustration with his own life. Maybe he felt that he also was one of the "pale, unsatisfied ones". He may have been struggling with the strains brought upon him by success. He may also have been going through a time of indecision in regards to his own spiritual life. Whatever the reason for his writing The Magi, Yeats wrote a poem rich in symbolism and imagery that many people could then, and can now, relate to on a very personal level.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O'Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.
Urdang, Laurence, ed. The American Century Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
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