On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

by John Milton
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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

“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.

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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 ancient belief held that at the time of Christ’s birth there were no wars being waged anywhere); thus, the earth is at harmony with its Creator—since the Fall, a unique occurrence.

He returns briefly to the immediate locale, to describe the shepherds and the angelic choir they hear. This is the harmony made audible. Normally the sign of creation’s harmony, the music of the spheres, is inaudible to human ears; on this night, that music blends with the angelic harmony in a transforming power, which gives a promise of a restored golden age.

Before this could happen, the poet realizes, Christ must die and be raised to glory, to judge the conquered Satan and his evil agents. Already their power is broken, however; the religions of Greece and Rome, which previously may have contained shadows of the truth, lose their prophetic and priestly power. Other pagan religions, such as those condemned in the Old Testament, also lose their evil hold: Their strongholds are overthrown. Milton catalogs those pagan gods in detail, from Peor and Baalim to Moloch and Typhon. Like ghosts, the false gods must return to the underworld at the dawn of the new Sun of righteousness. In the final stanza, the poem returns to the Nativity scene; the final image is not of the Christ child and Mary, but of “Bright-harnessed Angels”—that is, angels wearing armor—sitting about the stable in battle formation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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 pentameter, apart from the final line, which is hexameter; it rhymes ababbcc. The complete poem thus consists of 244 lines.

One of its more remarkable features is the cyclic nature of the hymn. It consists of three cycles: stanzas I-VII; VIII-XV; and XVI-XXVII. The first two cycles begin at the Nativity scene itself, then soar away into glory, reaching powerful climaxes. The final cycle works the other way round, finishing on a dismissive note as the false gods troop off to the underworld like ghosts. The final stanza then leaves readers with the sleeping infant in an effective closure. In this cyclic structure, Milton keeps close control over his imagination.

There are two predominant trains of imagery. The first is of light and darkness; from the glory of “that Light unsufferable/ And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty” (lines 8-9) to the “greater Sun” (Christ) outshining the “bright Throne, or burning Axletree” of the sun (lines 83-84). Similarly, darkness depicts first the human condition—“a darksome House of mortal Clay” (line 14)—then the underworld, where “Th’old Dragon Swinges the scaly Horror of his folded tail” (lines 168, 172), and the sites of pagan religion: “twilight shade of tangled thickets” (line 188); “left in shadows dread/ His burning Idol all of blackest hue” (lines 206-207).

The second train of imagery is of music, especially of harmony: The music of the spheres and the angelic choir both suggest triumph; the weeping and lament suggest old powers broken and passing away. The poem itself becomes its own image of integrated music. Other images are pastoral and rustic, and even sexual—nature is a fallen woman, needing snow for a covering to restore the appearance of innocence (stanza II).

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