The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)