Examine the use of classical mythology in Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," composed in 1629.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Milton imitates Chaucer's device of combining Classical allusions with Biblical subject matter in his long poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Milton starts out by inquiring whether the Muse--an allusion to the one of nine Greek muses to be credited with inspiring English poets since Chaucer--has a gift of verse or song to celebrate the birth of the one called the "Infant God" on his nativity, or day of birth. Milton ends his poem by saying the fairies ("yellow-skirted Fays") will fly into the night and leave their Earthly traces behind ("moon-loved maze").

Milton's object in employing Classical allusions in this poem is to suggest that at the birth of Jesus called Christ, the pagan gods and elves and fairies of the world were overturned in response to which they laid themselves to rest in order to answer the question of what happened to the gods and mythical creatures of pre-Christian eras. This objective is most clearly announced in Stanza VII of Part I, The Hymn, Lines 77 through 84:

And, though the shady gloom
Had given her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head of shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.

Milton alludes to numerous classical Greek pagan gods, the first of which after the Muse is Apollo, who daily pulled the Sun across the sky in a golden chariot led by seven immortal horses. Nature is described as the "paramour" of the Sun, Apollo, and is an allusion to Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, who's daughter Persephone was dragged by Hades into the Underworld. The goddess of Peace, alluded to next, is Eirene, who Milton says smoothed the ocean waters with a kiss and whispered joys to Poseidon ("Ocean"), the god of the Ocean.

Milton makes an interesting allusion in Part I, Stanza VIII through Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and flocks, wherein he contrasts the new-born Jesus with Pan. Milton then moves through the pantheon alluding to Artemis, also called Cynthia,

who contemplates the end of her reign:
Of Cynthia’s seat the airy Region thrilling,    
Now was almost won    
To think her part was done,            105
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:

then to the Oracles of Apollo at Delphos, to Osiris, to the demon Typhon and again to the Sun, also alluding to Peor, Baallim and Ashtaroth as well as others.

In between, in Part I, Stanzas XI through XIII, Milton writes of Jesus' birth in terms of Cherubim and Seraphim "in glittering ranks with wings displayed" singing in a welcoming choir ("quire"), which, in the next stanza, connects to the act of creation when the "Sons of Morning" sang at the setting of the constellations, the knowledge of which looses "ninefold harmony" of "the angelic symphony."

The following five stanzas ( XIV - XVIII) depict Jesus' upcoming life and work of redemption, with final judgment by "The dreadful Judge" against "The Old Dragon," another name for Lucifer. Thus Milton celebrates the rise of Jesus called Christ and the laying to rest of the pantheon of Greek gods and mythical creatures.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To read "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," by John Milton requires prior knowledge of Christian theology, Puritan controversy, seventeenth-century history, and classical mythology.

At line 5 of his poem, when Milton proclaims: "Our great redemption from above did bring;/ For so the holy sages once did sing," he joins centuries of Christian authors who saw in the classical stories of antiquity a kind of prophecy of the coming of Christ. In vain does the reader of Milton's Ode find any reference to the human personages long associated with the story of Christmas. Instead, the poet celebrates the Incarnation of Christ as a kind of cosmic revolution in which the ancient forms and images give way to "Son of Heav'ns eternal King."

What follows is a line-by-line guide to many of the classical allusions in the poem:

(line 5) holy sages. Ancient Hebrew prophets, but perhaps also Virgil, who predicts the birth of a peace-bearing child in the fourth book of Virgil's Eclogues.

(line 50) amorous clouds. The image suggests Jupiter assuming the form of a cloud to seduce Io in Ovid's Metamorphoses 1.

(line 51) mirtle. Associated with Venus in Virgil's Eclogues 7.62.

(line 68) Birds of Calm. The halcyons or kingfishers that Ovid describes in Metamorphoses 11.745-6 making love and nesting on the seas calmed especially for them.

(line 74) Lucifer. The morning star, Venus. In Latin, literally, "light-bearer." Milton consistently associates Venus, Lucifer and the "morning star" in his poetry

(line 84) Axletree. A metonymy for the sun's chariot, driven by the god Phoebus

(line 89) Pan. The [great] Pan is an image of Christ in Spenser

(lines 101-102) hollow round of Cynthia's seat. The sphere of the moon personified by the goddess, Cynthia.

(line 135) age of gold. the time of peace in the Eclogues of Virgil

(line 176) Apollo. the god of light and healing

(line 191) Lars and Lemures. Roman gods of home and spirits of the dead.

(line 194) Flamins. Priests serving a Roman deity.

(line 203) Hammon. Lybian god, Jupiter-Ammon, represented as a ram.

(line 211) gods of Nile. Isis was the Egyptian moon goddess, horned like a cow according to Herodotus (History 2.41). Horus, the Egyptian sun god, was her son by her brother Osiris. Anubis, his son, was figured with a jackal's head.

(line 213) Osiris. The principal Egyptian god also known as Apis, usually figured as a black bull with a white triangle on its forehead (Herodotus Histories 3.27-29).

(line 226) Typhon. In Greek myth, Typhon or Typhoneus was a fire-breathing giant with 100 heads and a serpentine body. See Hesiod's Theogony 820.

(line 227) his Godhead true. These Lines compare Christ to Hercules, who strangled two serpents a jealous Hera sent to destroy him while he was only an infant.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team