Christmas and Milton

milton

One of my favourite poems is Milton‘s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.

The poem is too long to reproduce in full here. Well, of course, I could do so with simply the stroke of a key, but it would seem a bit of a swizz.

I’m trying to work out what exactly it is I so like about the poem.

There is an opening prelude which sets the scene. This is in four stanzas. The first invokes the occasion, fairly conventionally:

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven’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.

The second continues this (Milton seems still to be a Trinitarian in this stanza). The third and fourth invoke the muse and establish the motivation for what follows:

III

Say, Heavenly 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 heaven, 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 Wisards haste with odours sweet!
Oh! run; prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessèd feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

This too is fairly conventional, with phrases which are familiar not only from other works of Milton, but also other hymns such as “Adestes Fideles.” “Prevent” presumably means, in this case, “come before.”

But what is really special is the hymn that follows. I love its metre, I love its colourful opening:

It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature, in awe to him,
Had doffed 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.

Up to stanza XVIII, Milton expounds the occasion and what it will lead to, namely judgment day. Then he embarks on a new theme. He builds on an ancient tradition that the pagan oracles stopped speaking on the occasion of Christ’s birth:

XIX

The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
Wi[th] hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.

The ensuing stanzas include references to a number of familiar characters from Satan’s parliament in Hell in Paradise Lost. Milton interprets the pagan gods as devils in disguise, driven from earth by Christ’s arrival. Apparently, this includes other supernatural beings, such as fairies. This continues up to stanza XXVI:

So, when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to the infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.

And then, Milton is finished. It’s a kind of “Hush! Don’t wake the baby!” moment as he simply brings the hymn to an end:

But see! the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest,
Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
Heaven’s youngest-teemèd star
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

That’s my favourite bit. I can feel the music left hanging in the air. It’s just so neat!

Not that I believe in the Christian parts any more than the pagan ones, but happy Xmas to any readers, all the same.

4 Responses to “Christmas and Milton”

  1. wanderer Says:

    Happy Christmas M, and to those close to you.

  2. Jim Belshaw Says:

    Happy Christmas M. I enjoyed this post, reciting the poetry to hear the sounds. It somehow seemed appropriate to be reading it on Christmas morning.

  3. Neil Says:

    Lovely stuff, Marcel. Have a great Christmas.

  4. Legal Eagle Says:

    Beautiful! I need to get back into poetry. Merry Christmas to you and your family too.

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