On the Morning of Christ's Nativity Themes

John Milton

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Milton’s imagination is cosmic. The central two stanzas of the introduction establish this. He wants to depict the full cosmic and spiritual significance of the Incarnation. This is his prophetic calling, similar to Isaiah’s (line 28). He is also a humanist, however—a lover of classical literature. There is thus a conflict posed for him as a Christian poet: What values can be put on classical myths and belief systems now that Christ has come to give full revelation? One traditional answer was to dismiss such myths as lies and deceptions (the Augustinian solution); the other was to accept them as partial revelation, as types and foreshadowings actually pointing the way to Christ. This is the answer Milton adopts. Christ becomes the fulfillment of the nature god Pan (stanza VIII); he is the new infant Hercules strangling the snake (Satan) in his crib (stanza XXV). Thus the prophetic oracles at Delphos did utter truth, but their power is now withdrawn and put on Christ (stanza XIX). This is how Milton states his Christian humanism, and how he establishes a basis for a transformed Christian pastoral.

When it is a question of Middle Eastern mythologies, as of Phoenicia, Canaan, or Egypt, however, his condemnation is complete, since the Old Testament condemns them utterly, and as a biblical Christian he needs to do the same. The position he adopts is the same one he retained in Paradise Lost: The pagan gods worshiped falsely are, in fact, not...

(The entire section is 466 words.)