‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ also known as Nativity Ode was written in 1629 when Milton was only twenty-one. It was published in 164 in his collection Poems of Mr. John Milton. He wrote the piece in celebration of his twenty-first birthday and in commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus.
The poem speaks on themes of coming of age and religion. Scholars often associate the composition of this work with Milton’s age and the birth of Christ. He is celebrating the nativity but also his own entry into the adult world. This piece is commonly recognized as Milton’s first great poem.
The poem takes the reader through a series of natural images at the beginning of the poem. The poet speaks on what the sun, stars, moon, and nature, in general, were doing. Their reactions are similar and express for the reader the power of the child’s birth.
The poem then moves into a prediction of what the future is going to be like. Peace is going to cover all the lands and no one is going to war. But, that can’t happen yet. First Christ has to die. Darkness comes over the poem briefly but is quickly lifted to make way for a series of pagan images. These old gods are described as leaving their abodes and traveling hastily to Hell. That is where they must stay for the rest time. In the last stanza, the poet returns to the image of the manger.
‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ by John Milton is a two-section, thirty-one stanza poem. There is a four-stanza introduction that is then followed by the bulk of the poem, known as the “hymn”. It is twenty-seven stanzas long. Milton changes his rhyme and meter between the two sections.
The introductory stanzas follow a structured rhyme scheme of ABABBCC and also conform to a specific metrical pattern. Each line, except for the last, contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. The final line of every stanza is different. It is written in iambic hexameter. This means that each line has six sets of two beats.
The hymnal stanzas are different but still make use of iambs. They follow a rhyme scheme of AABCCBDD. The first, second, fourth, and fifth lines of these stanzas are tercets, meaning there are three sets of two beats. The remaining two lines are traditional pentameter lines. Milton ends the stanza with a couplet, the first line of which contains four sets of two beats, know as tetrameter, and the second with six sets of two beats.
Milton makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “month” and “morn” in the very first line of the poem.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Forintsnce, the transition between stanzas twenty and twenty-one.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It is used frequently throughout ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. It is used to describe the sun, nature, and different forces like mercy and fear.
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.
IN the first stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ the speaker begins by outlining the scene and setting. IT is the morning of Christ’s birth. It is the time when the son of “Heav’n’s eternal King” was born. He brings with him to earth “Our great redemption”. This is an example of allusion, referring to all that’s to come during the life of Christ and how he will die.
The “holy sages” sung about the arrival of Christ on earth, and now, the poet is saying, he is here. He knows that with Christ on earth that humanity will make its way to “perpetual peace”.
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.
God, who sent his son to Earth, made a sacrifice to do so. He left behind the light of heaven and “that far-beaming blaze of Majesty”. Here is only one example of the many references to light in this piece. It acts as a symbol of salvation and Heaven itself.
Christ “forsook the courts of everlasting day”. He left the world of light and “chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay”. The speaker celebrates and praises this choice, he respects it and understands a difference to exist between the two worlds.
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?
In the third stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ the poet addresses the “Heav’nly Muse”. He asks, rhetorically, if the muse of heaven has something to give to the child. They must have a “hymn, solemn strain, or verse to sing unto hum who has just now entered into “his new abode”. This is an integral part of this introduction, setting up the main section of the poem that begins in the fifth stanza. Now is the time, the speaker says, for songs to be composed and sung to the infant.
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.
He encourages the muse, which is working within him, to run fast and get ahead of the “star-led wizards” in this stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ . This is a reference to the three wise men who are coming to deliver their gifts to Christ. The poet’s own song, as inspired by the muse, but arrive first and be lain at “his blessed feet”.This would allow “thou” to have the “honour first thy Lord to greet”.
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.
The “Hymn” section of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ begins in the fifth stanza. It is the gift that the muse is meant to deliver in the previous stanza. This section begins with the poet once more describing the nativity scene. It was “the winter wild” when the child was born. The setting was not at all luxurious. Instead he was “meanly,” or simply, “wrapt in the rude manger”.
Despite this fact, everything and everyone knew who he was and was in “awe” of him. Nature, personified, is said to “doff… her gaudy trim”. This begins a longer description of what the natural elements of the world were doing at the time.
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.
Rather than brewing storms or creating anything dangerous, nature “woos the gentle air” with fair, or lovely and peaceful speeches. Nature covers herself with the “saintly veil of maiden white”. As if embarrassed of how she appears naturally, nature covers herself so that her maker does not have to look “upon her foul deformities”. But, in the seventh stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ , her fears are relieved.
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.
The maker senses nature’s fears that she should hide herself and instead he brings her peace. In the form of an angle, “meek-ey’d Peace” comes down with a crown of green olive. This is his “ready harbinger,” there to instigate peace all over the world.
This alludes to a general conception that there was no war on earth at the time of Christ’s birth. Due to his arrival on earth, there was nothing but “universal peace through sea and land”.
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.
The facts of peace are reiterated at the beginning of the eighth stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. The speaker says that there were no sounds of sights of battle. The world was quiet with spears and swords “high uphung” out of hand. The chariots did not move nor were they stained with “hostile blood”.
Everyone, everywhere knew what was going on and chose not to arm themselves. It was a sense of peace as of yet unknown on Earth.
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.
The natural images come back into the poem in the ninth stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ . Here, the poet speaks about the peace of the night and how the “Prince of Light,” began his reign. The winds moved smoothly and whispered “joys to the mild Ocean”. Again, personification plays an important role in how the reader is meant to understand the effect that Christ had on the world. The ocean itself has forgotten to “rave,” or twist and turn its tides as normal.
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.
He moves on to speak about the stars in the tenth stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ . They are filled with “deep amaze,” appearing even brighter than they normally do. Rather than disappear in the light of day, they “will not take their flight”. They choose to stay until “their Lord himself bespake”. It was only with his word that they chose to leave the sky. Nothing could persuade them, not even the thought of Lucifer.
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.
The sun comes into the poem in the eleventh stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. He, embarrassed of his “inferior flame” and trouble rising to greet christ. He knew at that moment that his light was nothing compared to the “new greater Sun”. The world was newly enlightened by a light that was much more powerful and important.
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;
Milton describes the shepherds who were on the lawn at dawn “chatting in a rustic row”. They did not have so much knowledge of the world as the stars, moon, and sun. They thought only of their “loves, or else their sheep” Their simple thoughts filled their minds. But, a music filled the air in this part of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’.
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.
It came on the breeze and their “hearts and ears” were greeted by it. It was music that had never before been heard on earth. The voice was clearly full of divinity and brought elevation and rapture to their souls.
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.
Nature, as the sun had earlier, thought that there was no purpose for her on earth any longer. She knew that this song, the power of God, cold hold the world together “in happier union” than she could. Her “reign had here its last fulfilling” and she was no longer needed.
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.
Additionally, in this stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ the poet outlines how in the sky there was another spectacular sight, filled with light. There was a “globe of circular light” in which there could be seen “Cherubim” and “Seraphim”. They appear in their glittering ranks with their wings spread, displaying themselves and singing “loud and solemn” for their lord.
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,
bid the welt’ring waves their oozy channel keep.
The poet notes that the music’s originality has already been noted, but he must acknowledge it again. It was never made before. The song had the power to change how the world behaved. The “welt’ring waves” kept their “oozy channel” and the “dark foundations” of the earth were “cast” deep.
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.
The speaker addresses the song and encourages it to enter and change everyone and everything on earth in this stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ . It should “bless our human ears” and “touch our senses so” if it can. Its “silver chime” and “melodious time” moves through the earth.
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,
leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.
Everyone’s life should now be wrapped up in the holy song, the speaker thinks. Our “fancy” should be contained within it. In the face of such a song “Vanity / Will sicken soon and die”. All the sin of the world will melt away and “Hell itself will pass”. This is a hopeful message one that alludes to an earth anyone would want to strive for.
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.
Truth and justice will also become more powerful in this world. They will “return to men” along with “Mercy”. These forces are depicted as kings on thrones, covered in a “celestial sheen”. This is, for the speaker, the point at which everyone comes closer to heaven.
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,
But, the speaker pauses at the beginning of the twentieth stanza, this can’t yet be so. There is something that has to happen first. The babe that is smiling in the manger has to end up on the “bitter cross”. Christ has to die for our sins for this world to be made real. Then, “both himself and us” will be glorified.
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.
Darkness overtakes the hopeful mood that has so far been perpetuated through the first twenty stanzas. There is much depression and fear to be faced before hope and peace are ever-present. The fear is outlined very well in this stanza. He describes the earth-shaking and a “horrid clang” ringing out from Mount Sinai. This is judgment day, faced by all those on earth.
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.
The terror of the previous stanza lifts and the “bliss / Full and perfect” begins. Milton uses the metaphor of a dragon that’s cast underground and bound. Its sway is much smaller and less terrifying than it was. His kingdom has failed. These images are connected to the devil and human sin.
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.
The next lines of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity reference Greece and Rome. They did, at one point, hold a bit of truth but now things are different. The priests are not inspired by spells nor are the wonders of that world celebrated.
Stanzas Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five
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.
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.
These images are dark, but they are in support of the change coming over the world. The old pagan religions are falling apart and no one cares to think about them any longer. They are evil, to the speaker, that will be banished from the world.
Milton depicts these old religions are moaning, dying, and falling to pieces. “each peculiar power” leaves “his wonted seat”.
Peor and Baalim
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.
The twenty-sixth stanza is filled with references to different gods and religions. He speaks of how “In vain Tyrian maids” mourn and “Peor and Baalim” are cast back down into history where they belong. They no longer reign.
Stanzas Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight
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.
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.
A similar pattern emerges in the next stanza as he mentions “Moloch,” a Canaanite deity fleeing and leaving behind his “burning idols”. The same happens to the “gods of Nile”. They leave the world quickly.
Last, he mentions “Osiris,” the god of the afterlife in Egyptian mythology. He can’t stop and rest and has the only hell as his shroud.
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.
The gods of the past know that something has changed. They can feel the “dreaded Infant’s hand” and the light shining from Bethlehem. It blinds them and destroys them. The child, although new to the world, is so powerful that with his hand he “control[s] the damned crew”.
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.
The sun comes back into the poem in the thirtieth stanza. It watches as the “troops” of shadow flock to their infernal jail. They are only ghosts now and they enter into their graves.
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.
In the last stanza of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ the poem brings the reader back to the nativity scene. He depicts the blessed Virgin and her babe. It is right, the poet thinks, for the song to end here. The scene is a peaceful one, as the reader should have expected. The last image though is one that alludes to the power of God, a contingent of angels sitting, armored, around a table. They are ready to do whatever is needed.