On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
John Milton was, first and foremost, odd. We know him today for Paradise Lost, the great English epic poem. He was fluent in English, Latin, Greek, and Italian. His much and oft-celebrated Areopagitica supported the abandonment of censorship, which is ironic considering how often he fought to suppress ideas that were contrary to his own. This contradiction is evident in most of his poetry, but prominent in On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.
Milton’s Nativity was written on the occasion of his ascension to the age of maturity. Let us make no mistake in assessing this piece: it is magnificent in poetic quality and genius. Milton reveals his ability to master language, theme, and scripture. What makes the work all the more remarkable is the subversion of 1600 years of theological development in no less than twenty-seven stanzas. This poem, with its marvelous rhyme scheme and scriptural assessments, represents Milton’s first major break from, not only the Catholicism but also his own Church of England, which he viewed as being too Catholic in its style and sensibilities.
Beginning with the title of his ode, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, many readers notice something is amiss. Milton has avoided labeling his work with something that might be misconstrued as Catholic. Most would call this special and holy occasion “Christmas,” otherwise known as Christ’s Mass - the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. Milton, however, sidesteps this claim. In the opening lines, Milton implores his “Heav’nly Muse” to rush for the newborn Christ, “To welcome him to his new abode” (16-19). He wishes to reach Christ before anyone else has the chance: “Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet” (27). He not only wishes to join those chosen few witnessing the scene, including angelic choirs, but reach it first. At the moment of the Lord’s birth, his image is unspoiled, untarnished by the traditions that would follow him. If Milton’s muse is able to reach him first, he can bypass the many years of Church history and thought that have erupted since that divine moment.
This ode’s primary purpose, though, is to praise and worship Christ. Milton, along with his muse, pushes forward, listing the pagan entities that his small child has already crushed. The Oracles can no longer predict; Peor, Ba’al, and Moloch must abandon their temples. Christ, Milton and muse assert, “Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew” (228). Milton, like Tolkien and Lewis three-hundred years later, combines a deep understanding of mythology and Scripture. Christ is the one myth that is also true. All false deities, all shallow deities, flee before Him. This style changes with time. By the time Paradise Lost is penned, Milton abandons this marriage of myth with Divinity, leaning explicitly and strictly on Scripture to craft his great English epic.
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, though, reveals few of the prejudices Milton would come to reveal. He avoids references to Catholic, and even Anglican, theology, but still exhibits a love and devotion to Christ that few would be able to express. Indeed, his craft in this ode is exemplary and astounding. Regardless of one’s religious or denominational preference, it is worth reading and can be found at this link.
John Milton was complicated, but his adoration of Christ was not. Despite his theological, political, or even literary leanings, he had a pure and simple love for Christ that few have been able to match. On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity does little more than affirm this adoration. It affirms that Christ, even as a child, had come to repair the sinful damage of mankind.
Image Source: The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (1809). William Blake Illustration. Public Domain.