On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

by John Milton
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Does Milton’s use of pagan mythology in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” enhance or detract from the poem’s themes?

In “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” Milton uses pagan mythology to enhance the poem’s themes of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of peace and unity in Him. Milton shows that all the elements of pagan mythology bow to Christ, their Creator, and are put firmly in their proper places in the order of the universe.

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To determine whether Milton’s use of pagan mythology enhances or detracts from the themes of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” we first have to identity the poem’s themes and take a look at how Milton uses pagan mythology.

Let’s begin with the themes. This poem describes the birth of...

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To determine whether Milton’s use of pagan mythology enhances or detracts from the themes of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” we first have to identity the poem’s themes and take a look at how Milton uses pagan mythology.

Let’s begin with the themes. This poem describes the birth of Jesus in terms of the peace and unity He brought to the world. Jesus laid aside His majesty, the speaker explains, and “chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.” Even though human beings in the poem do not recognize the arrival of God among His people, the elements of nature do. Nature, in fact, stands in awe. The stars shine in amazement, and the sun “hid[es] his head for shame” because his flame is inferior to the “greater Sun” who has just appeared. The “crystal spheres” of the heavens ring out in “ninefold harmony,” joining with the “angelic symphony.” All of nature unites to worship the newborn King, and human beings experience peace, too, even though they don’t understand why.

The celestial entities that Milton mentions all held a place in pagan mythology and were often worshiped by pagan peoples. Yet now, these entities join in the worship of Jesus, God-made-Man. They are properly put in their places in the God-created order of the universe. They are shown not to be deities but rather to worship the Deity who has come among them as a little child.

The speaker mentions the muse but now does not associate the muse with a goddess but identifies her as an assistant from Heaven sent to help him properly describe this grand event. The shepherds think of Jesus in terms of “the mighty Pan” who has “kindly come to live with them below.” In so doing, they may be rather mixed up in their theology, but the speaker knows that Jesus is not Pan. He is much greater than Pan, and He has come to show that Pan is not a “god” at all. The shepherds in their “silly thoughts” will soon learn this, too.

We can see then, through these reflections, that Milton’s use of pagan mythology actually enhances the poem’s themes, because he clearly and thoroughly subordinates all of the pagan elements to Jesus Christ, who is the God of all. The pagan notions are raised up and transformed to serve their Creator when He arrives.

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