The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” was written in 1629, while John Milton was still a student at the University of Cambridge. In some ways it is clearly an “apprentice” work, in its often naïve tone, youthful idealism, and occasional quaint conceit. In other ways, however, it shows an already clear control of the poetic medium, verse structure, and overall design. Its central concerns anticipate quite remarkably those of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), written some thirty years later. The poem is thus of interest not only intrinsically, but also in that it indicates the contours of Milton’s imagination and his concerns at the start of his poetic career.
In the introduction, the poem is seen as a nativity offering to the infant Christ. Milton uses the conceit of running before the three wise men in order to deliver his gift first. The poem is both gift and prophetic word, joining with the angelic choir.
In the main section of the poem (“The Hymn”), which becomes the gift itself, Milton describes first the time and place of the nativity. He is determined to move away from traditional depictions, which center on mother and child, the stable, and Joseph in an intimate, enclosed scene. Instead, his imagination soars, moving into the cosmic and universal realms, adopting a bird’s-eye (or an angel’s-eye) view and reaching into heavenly glory. The setting is depicted in terms of the whole of nature being at peace (an...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The poem is difficult to classify generically. Although the main section is entitled “The Hymn,” it is clearly not a hymn in any traditional sense: It is not addressed to God, nor has it any explicit exhortation to fellow believers. It has features of an ode; although the Nativity is never addressed as such, it does have the elevated language associated with that genre. It also contains pastoral elements. It is best seen, perhaps, as a meditation on the transfiguring power that Christ’s birth had over the created world.
“The Hymn” consists of twenty-seven eight-line stanzas, rhyming aabccbdd, although the last two lines never work as a couplet. The stanzas are basically one-sentence units, and they already prefigure the long sentence structures of Milton’s later verse. The complex metric structure seems to have been entirely of Milton’s making, showing a youthful ingenuity and mastery. The a-and c-rhyming lines are trimeters; the b-rhyming lines are pentameters; and the final two lines consist of a tetrameter followed by a hexameter. The meter is basically iambic, but not rigidly so. There is also a very flexible use made of syntactic structures within the metric ones. Milton exploits a wide dramatic range, from the quick, soft smoothness of stanza V, to the slow elegiac lament of stanza XX, to the dissonances of stanza XXIV.
The introduction consists of four stanzas of seven lines of iambic...
(The entire section is 515 words.)