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The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (1809), one of William Blake's illustrations of On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity is a nativity ode written by John Milton in 1629 and published in his Poems of Mr. John Milton (1645). The poem describes Christ's Incarnation and his overthrow of earthly and pagan powers. The poem also connects the Incarnation with Christ's Crucifixion.

Contents

Background

Milton composed On the Morning of Christ's Nativity in December 1629, after celebrating reaching the age of maturity in England,[1] in commemoration of Christ's birth. It was written while Charles Diodati, Milton's friend, was composing his own poem, and the poem reflects his sober, contemplative lifestyle in comparison to Diodati's extravagant way of living.[2] The ode was composed during a time in Milton's life that he based his understanding of religion on Scripture, but he was still influenced by myth.[3]

Although the ode was the first poem of Milton's 1645 collection, it was not the first poem that he wrote; many of the Latin and Greek poems included in the 1645 collection were composed during an earlier time. According to Thomas Corns, "Quite probably, its location indicates the poet's assessment of its quality"; this consideration is significant because Humphrey Moseley, an important bookseller, was the publisher of the volume and the ode serves as an introduction to Milton's poetry.[1]

Poem

By Stanza VII, nature stands back, and Christ's birth causes the sun to refuse to take its place:[4]

And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame;
He saw a greater sun appear
Than his bright throne, or burning axle-tree could bear (lines 77–84)

The poem transitions into The Hymn for a new set of stanzas. Christ's role, even as a baby, is apparent and made clear within Stanzas XV and XVI:[5]

Yea Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men
...
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
But wisest Fate says no,
This must not yet be so,
The babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorify; (lines 141–142, 147–154)

Themes

The ode with The Passion and Upon the Circumcision form a set of poems that celebrates important Christian events: Christ's birth, the feast of the Circumcision, and Good Friday. The topic of these poems places them within a genre of Christian literature popular during the 17th century and places Milton alongside of poets like John Donne, Richard Crashaw, and George Herbert. However, Milton's poetry reflects the origins of his anti-William Laud and anti-Church of England based religious beliefs.[6]

The poem deals with both the Nativity and the Incarnation of Christ and Milton believed that the two were connected. The Nativity and the Crucifixion represent Christ's purpose as Christ in Milton's poetry, and contemporary poem, because Christ becomes human-like in the Nativity to redeem fallen man and humanity is redeemed when Christ sacrifices himself during the Crucifixion. Milton's reliance on the connection is traditional, and Milton further connects the Nativity with the creation of the world, a theme that is expanded upon later in Book VII of Paradise Lost. Like the other two poems of the set and like other poems at the time, the ode describes a narrator within the poem and experiencing the Nativity.[7]

Critical response

The ode has, according to Thomas Corns, "generally been recognized as Milton's first manifestation of poetic genius and, qualitatively, a poem to be set alongside 'Lycidas' and A Masque presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634 as his most significant poetic works before Paradise Lost.[1] He further claims that the ode "rises in many ways above the rather commonplace achievements of Milton's other devotional poems and stands out from the mass of other early Stuart poems about Christmas."[8]

In music

Notes

  1. ^ a b c Corns 2003 p. 216
  2. ^ Shawcross 1993 pp. 43–44
  3. ^ Shawcross 1993 p. 23
  4. ^ Corns 2003 p. 224
  5. ^ Corns 2003 p. 222
  6. ^ Corns 2003 pp. 216–217
  7. ^ Corns 2003 pp. 221–213
  8. ^ Corns 2003 p. 221

References

  • Corns, Thomas. "'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity', 'Upon the Circumcision' and 'The Passion'" in A Companion to Milton. Ed. Thomas Corns. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  • Shawcross, John. John Milton: The Self and the World. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
by John Milton

I

              This is the month, and this the happy morn,
                  Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
              Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
                  Our great redemption from above did bring;
                  For so the holy sages once did sing,
                      That he our deadly forfeit should release,
                      And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

II

              That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
                  And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
            Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
                To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
                He laid aside, and here with us to be,
                    Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
                    And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

III

            Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
                Afford a present to the Infant God?
            Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
                To welcome him to this his new abode,
                Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,
                    Hath took no print of the approaching light,
                    And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

IV

            See how from far upon the eastern road
                The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
            O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
                And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
                Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
                    And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
                    From out his secret altar touch'd with hallow'd fire.

The Hymn

I

            It was the winter wild,
            While the Heav'n-born child,
                  All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
            Nature in awe to him
            Had doff'd her gaudy trim,
                  With her great Master so to sympathize:
            It was no season then for her
            To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.

II

            Only with speeches fair
            She woos the gentle air
                  To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
            And on her naked shame,
            Pollute with sinful blame,
                  The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
            Confounded, that her Maker's eyes
            Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

III

            But he, her fears to cease,
            Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace:
                  She, crown'd with olive green, came softly sliding
            Down through the turning sphere,
            His ready harbinger,
                  With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
            And waving wide her myrtle wand,
            She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.

IV

            No war or battle's sound
            Was heard the world around;
                  The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
            The hooked chariot stood
            Unstain'd with hostile blood;
                  The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
            And kings sate still with awful eye,
            As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

V

            But peaceful was the night
            Wherein the Prince of Light
                  His reign of peace upon the earth began:
            The winds with wonder whist,
            Smoothly the waters kist,
                  Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
            Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
            While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

VI

            The Stars with deep amaze
            Stand fix'd in steadfast gaze,
                  Bending one way their precious influence;
            And will not take their flight,
            For all the morning light,
                  Or Lucifer that often warn'd them thence,
            But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
            Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

VII

            And though the shady gloom
            Had given day her room,
                  The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
            And hid his head for shame,
            As his inferior flame
                  The new-enlighten'd world no more should need:
            He saw a greater Sun appear
            Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.

VIII

            The shepherds on the lawn,
            Or ere the point of dawn,
                  Sate simply chatting in a rustic row;
            Full little thought they than
            That the mighty Pan
                  Was kindly come to live with them below:
            Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
            Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep;

IX

            When such music sweet
            Their hearts and ears did greet,
                  As never was by mortal finger strook,
            Divinely warbled voice
            Answering the stringed noise,
                  As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
            The air such pleasure loth to lose,
          With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav'nly close.

X

          Nature, that heard such sound
          Beneath the hollow round
                Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
          Now was almost won
          To think her part was done,
                And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
          She knew such harmony alone
          Could hold all heav'n and earth in happier union.

XI

          At last surrounds their sight
          A globe of circular light,
                That with long beams the shame-fac'd Night array'd;
          The helmed Cherubim
          And sworded Seraphim
                Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display'd,
          Harping in loud and solemn quire,
          With unexpressive notes to Heav'n's new-born Heir.

XII

          Such music (as 'tis said)
          Before was never made,
                But when of old the sons of morning sung,
          While the Creator great
          His constellations set,
                And the well-balanc'd world on hinges hung,
          And cast the dark foundations deep,
          And bid the welt'ring waves their oozy channel keep.

XIII

          Ring out ye crystal spheres!
          Once bless our human ears
                (If ye have power to touch our senses so)
          And let your silver chime
          Move in melodious time,
                And let the bass of Heav'n's deep organ blow;
          And with your ninefold harmony
          Make up full consort to th'angelic symphony.

XIV

          For if such holy song
          Enwrap our fancy long,
                Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
          And speckl'd Vanity
          Will sicken soon and die,
                And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
          And Hell itself will pass away,
          And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.

XV

          Yea, Truth and Justice then
          Will down return to men,
                Orb'd in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
          Mercy will sit between,
          Thron'd in celestial sheen,
                With radiant feet the tissu'd clouds down steering;
          And Heav'n, as at some festival,
          Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.

XVI

          But wisest Fate says no:
          This must not yet be so;
                The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
          That on the bitter cross
          Must redeem our loss,
                So both himself and us to glorify:
          Yet first to those ychain'd in sleep,
          The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,

XVII

          With such a horrid clang
          As on Mount Sinai rang
                While the red fire and smould'ring clouds outbrake:
          The aged Earth, aghast
          With terror of that blast,
                Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
          When at the world's last session,
          The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.

XVIII

          And then at last our bliss
          Full and perfect is,
                But now begins; for from this happy day
          Th'old Dragon under ground,
          In straiter limits bound,
                Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
          And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
          Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.

XIX

          The Oracles are dumb;
          No voice or hideous hum
                Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
          Apollo from his shrine
          Can no more divine,
                With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
          No nightly trance or breathed spell
          Inspires the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetic cell.

XX

          The lonely mountains o'er,
          And the resounding shore,
                A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
          From haunted spring, and dale
          Edg'd with poplar pale,
                The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
          With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn
          The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

XXI

          In consecrated earth,
          And on the holy hearth,
                The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
          In urns and altars round,
          A drear and dying sound
                Affrights the flamens at their service quaint;
          And the chill marble seems to sweat,
          While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.

XXII

          Peor and Ba{:a}lim
          Forsake their temples dim,
                With that twice-batter'd god of Palestine;
          And mooned Ashtaroth,
          Heav'n's queen and mother both,
                Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
          The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
          In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.

XXIII

          And sullen Moloch, fled,
          Hath left in shadows dread
                His burning idol all of blackest hue:
          In vain with cymbals' ring
          They call the grisly king,
                In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
          The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
          Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.

XXIV

          Nor is Osiris seen
          In Memphian grove or green,
                Trampling the unshower'd grass with lowings loud;
          Nor can he be at rest
          Within his sacred chest,
                Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
          In vain with timbrel'd anthems dark
          The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipp'd ark.

XXV

          He feels from Juda's land
          The dreaded Infant's hand,
                The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
          Nor all the gods beside
          Longer dare abide,
                Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
          Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
          Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.

XXVI

          So when the Sun in bed,
          Curtain'd with cloudy red,
                Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
          The flocking shadows pale
          Troop to th'infernal jail,
                Each fetter'd ghost slips to his several grave,
          And the yellow-skirted fays
          Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-lov'd maze.

XXVII

          But see, the Virgin blest
          Hath laid her Babe to rest:
                Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
          Heav'n's youngest-teemed star,
          Hath fix'd her polish'd car,
                Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
          And all about the courtly stable,
          Bright-harness'd Angels sit in order serviceable.


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