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John Milton (1608-1674)

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity


I

              1This is the month, and this the happy morn,
              2    Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
              3Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
              4    Our great redemption from above did bring;
              5    For so the holy sages once did sing,
              6        That he our deadly forfeit should release,
              7        And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

II

              8That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
              9    And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
            10Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
            11    To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
            12    He laid aside, and here with us to be,
            13        Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
            14        And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

III

            15Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
            16    Afford a present to the Infant God?
            17Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
            18    To welcome him to this his new abode,
            19    Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,
            20        Hath took no print of the approaching light,
            21        And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

IV

            22See how from far upon the eastern road
            23    The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
            24O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
            25    And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
            26    Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
            27        And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
            28        From out his secret altar touch'd with hallow'd fire.

The Hymn

I

            29It was the winter wild,
            30While the Heav'n-born child,
            31      All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
            32Nature in awe to him
            33Had doff'd her gaudy trim,
            34      With her great Master so to sympathize:
            35It was no season then for her
            36To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.

II

            37Only with speeches fair
            38She woos the gentle air
            39      To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
            40And on her naked shame,
            41Pollute with sinful blame,
            42      The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
            43Confounded, that her Maker's eyes
            44Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

III

            45But he, her fears to cease,
            46Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace:
            47      She, crown'd with olive green, came softly sliding
            48Down through the turning sphere,
            49His ready harbinger,
            50      With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
            51And waving wide her myrtle wand,
            52She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.

IV

            53No war or battle's sound
            54Was heard the world around;
            55      The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
            56The hooked chariot stood
            57Unstain'd with hostile blood;
            58      The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
            59And kings sate still with awful eye,
            60As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

V

            61But peaceful was the night
            62Wherein the Prince of Light
            63      His reign of peace upon the earth began:
            64The winds with wonder whist,
            65Smoothly the waters kist,
            66      Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
            67Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
            68While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

VI

            69The Stars with deep amaze
            70Stand fix'd in steadfast gaze,
            71      Bending one way their precious influence;
            72And will not take their flight,
            73For all the morning light,
            74      Or Lucifer that often warn'd them thence,
            75But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
            76Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

VII

            77And though the shady gloom
            78Had given day her room,
            79      The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
            80And hid his head for shame,
            81As his inferior flame
            82      The new-enlighten'd world no more should need:
            83He saw a greater Sun appear
            84Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.

VIII

            85The shepherds on the lawn,
            86Or ere the point of dawn,
            87      Sate simply chatting in a rustic row;
            88Full little thought they than
            89That the mighty Pan
            90      Was kindly come to live with them below:
            91Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
            92Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep;

IX

            93When such music sweet
            94Their hearts and ears did greet,
            95      As never was by mortal finger strook,
            96Divinely warbled voice
            97Answering the stringed noise,
            98      As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
            99The air such pleasure loth to lose,
          100With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav'nly close.

X

          101Nature, that heard such sound
          102Beneath the hollow round
          103      Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
          104Now was almost won
          105To think her part was done,
          106      And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
          107She knew such harmony alone
          108Could hold all heav'n and earth in happier union.

XI

          109At last surrounds their sight
          110A globe of circular light,
          111      That with long beams the shame-fac'd Night array'd;
          112The helmed Cherubim
          113And sworded Seraphim
          114      Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display'd,
          115Harping in loud and solemn quire,
          116With unexpressive notes to Heav'n's new-born Heir.

XII

          117Such music (as 'tis said)
          118Before was never made,
          119      But when of old the sons of morning sung,
          120While the Creator great
          121His constellations set,
          122      And the well-balanc'd world on hinges hung,
          123And cast the dark foundations deep,
          124And bid the welt'ring waves their oozy channel keep.

XIII

          125Ring out ye crystal spheres!
          126Once bless our human ears
          127      (If ye have power to touch our senses so)
          128And let your silver chime
          129Move in melodious time,
          130      And let the bass of Heav'n's deep organ blow;
          131And with your ninefold harmony
          132Make up full consort to th'angelic symphony.

XIV

          133For if such holy song
          134Enwrap our fancy long,
          135      Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
          136And speckl'd Vanity
          137Will sicken soon and die,
          138      And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
          139And Hell itself will pass away,
          140And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.

XV

          141Yea, Truth and Justice then
          142Will down return to men,
          143      Orb'd in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
          144Mercy will sit between,
          145Thron'd in celestial sheen,
          146      With radiant feet the tissu'd clouds down steering;
          147And Heav'n, as at some festival,
          148Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.

XVI

          149But wisest Fate says no:
          150This must not yet be so;
          151      The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
          152That on the bitter cross
          153Must redeem our loss,
          154      So both himself and us to glorify:
          155Yet first to those ychain'd in sleep,
          156The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,

XVII

          157With such a horrid clang
          158As on Mount Sinai rang
          159      While the red fire and smould'ring clouds outbrake:
          160The aged Earth, aghast
          161With terror of that blast,
          162      Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
          163When at the world's last session,
          164The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.

XVIII

          165And then at last our bliss
          166Full and perfect is,
          167      But now begins; for from this happy day
          168Th'old Dragon under ground,
          169In straiter limits bound,
          170      Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
          171And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
          172Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.

XIX

          173The Oracles are dumb;
          174No voice or hideous hum
          175      Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
          176Apollo from his shrine
          177Can no more divine,
          178      With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
          179No nightly trance or breathed spell
          180Inspires the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetic cell.

XX

          181The lonely mountains o'er,
          182And the resounding shore,
          183      A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
          184From haunted spring, and dale
          185Edg'd with poplar pale,
          186      The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
          187With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn
          188The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

XXI

          189In consecrated earth,
          190And on the holy hearth,
          191      The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
          192In urns and altars round,
          193A drear and dying sound
          194      Affrights the flamens at their service quaint;
          195And the chill marble seems to sweat,
          196While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.

XXII

          197Peor and Ba{:a}lim
          198Forsake their temples dim,
          199      With that twice-batter'd god of Palestine;
          200And mooned Ashtaroth,
          201Heav'n's queen and mother both,
          202      Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
          203The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
          204In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.

XXIII

          205And sullen Moloch, fled,
          206Hath left in shadows dread
          207      His burning idol all of blackest hue:
          208In vain with cymbals' ring
          209They call the grisly king,
          210      In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
          211The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
          212Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.

XXIV

          213Nor is Osiris seen
          214In Memphian grove or green,
          215      Trampling the unshower'd grass with lowings loud;
          216Nor can he be at rest
          217Within his sacred chest,
          218      Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
          219In vain with timbrel'd anthems dark
          220The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipp'd ark.

XXV

          221He feels from Juda's land
          222The dreaded Infant's hand,
          223      The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
          224Nor all the gods beside
          225Longer dare abide,
          226      Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
          227Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
          228Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.

XXVI

          229So when the Sun in bed,
          230Curtain'd with cloudy red,
          231      Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
          232The flocking shadows pale
          233Troop to th'infernal jail,
          234      Each fetter'd ghost slips to his several grave,
          235And the yellow-skirted fays
          236Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-lov'd maze.

XXVII

          237But see, the Virgin blest
          238Hath laid her Babe to rest:
          239      Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
          240Heav'n's youngest-teemed star,
          241Hath fix'd her polish'd car,
          242      Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
          243And all about the courtly stable,
          244Bright-harness'd Angels sit in order serviceable.

Notes

5] holy Sages: the Hebrew prophets.

6] deadly forfeit: the penalty of death incurred by man through the Fall.

11] the midst of Trinal Unity: i.e., as the Second Person of the Trinity, three Persons and one God.

15] Heavenly Muse. See Paradise Lost, I, 6 and note.

19] The sky before the chariot of the sun has commenced to move across it; cf. below line 84 and note.

21] spangled host: the stars.

23] wizards: the "wise men from the east'' (Matthew 1:2).

24] prevent: anticipate, come before.

28] In Isaiah 6:6-7, a seraph takes a burning coal from the altar and touches the lips of the prophet. Milton adopts this as a symbol of his own dedication and inspiration, remembering that the seraphim symbolized love of God.

39] front: face.

42] confounded: put to shame.

44] cease: put a stop to.

47] The olive branch or wreath and the dove ("turtle" here stands for turtle dove) are symbols of peace, and the turtle dove and myrtle are symbols of love. In Ben Jonson's Entertainments at the Coronation of James 1, Peace is thus described: "... her attire white, semined with stars: a wreath of olive on her head, on her shoulder a silver dove. In her left hand she held forth an olive branch."

48] The concentric spheres of the Ptolemaic universe. See below, line 125.

49] harbinger: forerunner.

53] Christian tradition associated what was known as the peace of Augustus with the birth of Christ.

56] hooked chariot: war chariot armed with protruding hooks or blades.

59] awful eye: eyes expressing awe.

64] whist: hushed.

68] Tradition described the halcyons as hatching out their offspring on the sea, temporarily calm, in late December: hence Milton's birds of calm, and the common phrase "halcyon days."

71] An astrological image: power emanating from the stars was held to influence life on earth: their influence (here wholly beneficent) is now all directed towards the child Christ at Bethlehem.

74] Lucifer: the morning star, last to set, and hence thought of as the shepherd or guardian of the rest.

75] orbs: see below line 125 and note.

84] Ovid, recounting the legend of Phaeton, tells how the Sun quits his palace with its jewelled throne, and, when Lucifer has marshalled the departing stars, ascends his chariot and drives across the sky.

85] The shepherds, to whom the angel appeared (Luke 2:8);
lawn: grass-land.

86] Or ere: before.

87] Than: then.

89] In classic myth Pan is the god and protector of shepherds and flocks. Not without precedent, Milton here associates Pan with Christ, the Good Shepherd (see Spenser, Shepheardes Calender, "Maye," Glosse).

91] loves or ... sheep. The shepherds of pastoral poetry cared for their sheep and sang of their loves.

92] silly: simple, rustic; like simple, silly also connoted harmless, innocent.

97] noise: music--here of stringed instruments.

98] took: captivated, cast a spell upon.

100] close: conclusion of a musical phrase, cadence.

102] the hollow round of Cynthia's seat: the sphere which contains the moon, whose goddess was Diana, called Cynthia because born on Mount Cynthus in Delos. See below, lines 125-32 and note.

106] The music made by the turning spheres (see below, lines 125-32 and note) was thought to be or to symbolize the power that preserved the natural world in harmonious order: the higher music of the angel choir, if it continued thus to penetrate the world of nature, would perform this function yet more perfectly and render Nature's music superfluous.

112] Seraphim and Cherubim: the first two orders in the hierarchy of angels.

114] display'd: extended (a term used in heraldry).

116] unexpressive: inexpressible (in any otherway), indescribable.

119] Cf. Job 38:4-11.

125] In the geo-centric scheme of the universe adopted by Ptolemy, the earth was surrounded by a series of concentric and transparent (cf. crystal) spheres containing moon, sun, each of the five planets then known, all the fixed stars, and the crystalline sphere, numbering nine (cf. ninefold) with the outer sphere or primum mobile, so called because it communicated motion to the whole. This was the system slowly displaced by the helio-centric scheme of Copernicus, supported and elaborated by the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. To the older scheme belonged the idea, met in Plato, that the spheres, as they turned, produced music and together made up a perfect harmony (cf. ninefold harmony), and this harmony was, or symbolized, the force which kept the universe in its order. The music was, of course, inaudible to mankind (hence the request at lines 126-27). By Christian commentators the number of the spheres was held to correspond to the nine orders in the hierarchy of angels, and from this correspondence Milton develops or adopts the idea that the music of the spheres (the image ofperfect order and harmony on the natural level) might sound in unison with the song of the angel choir (the image of perfect order and harmony on the supernatural level): hence, make up a full consort to the angelic voices.

132] consort: synonymous with harmony and symphony.

135] According to the cyclic view of history entertained by the ancient Greeks, the earliest age was one of innocence and happiness, which they called the Golden Age; it was succeeded by others growing progressively worse, till the cycle was completed and the Golden Age returned.

141] Justice. The goddess of Justice, Astraea, was said to have left the world at the end of the Golden Age. Virgil prophesies her return and a new Age of Gold (Eclogues, IV, 4-9).

146] tissu'd: woven of silk and silver threads.

149] wisest Fate is identified by Milton with the will of God: "what I will is Fate" (P.L. VII, 173).

154] Cf. John 17:4-5, 22.

155] Cf. Thessalonians 4:15-16.

157] Cf. Exodus 19:15-20.

164] : "they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30).

168] Based on two passages in Revelation: "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil .... and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit ... that he should deceive the nations no more ..." (20:2-3 ); "And his [the "great red dragon's"] tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth" (12:4).

173] Christian commentators seized on the assertion of Plutarch that the pagan oracles (of which the most famous was that of Apollo at Delphi) fell silent, and associated the fact with the coming of Christ. Lat. cella designated the shrine.

181] Plutarch also recounts how, about this time, the pilot of a ship announced that great Pan was dead and the news was greeted with loud wailing and lamentation from the nearby shore.

186] Genius. See Lycidas, line 183 note.

191] Lars: Roman household gods;
Lemures: Spirits of the departed.

194] Flamens: Roman priests;
quaint: elaborate.

195] marble seems to sweat. Cf. "The marble pillers and images.../Swet all for sorowe" (Alexander Barclay, Eclogue 3).

196] peculiar: particular.

197] Milton covers much of this ground again and in greater detail in P.L. I, 392-489; and see notes thereon.
Peor was one of the manifestations of Baal, the Phoenician sun god. Baalim is the plural of Baal and hence includes his local manifestations.

199] twice-batter'd god: Dagon. See I Sam. 5:1-4; P.L., I, 457-66.

201] Ashtaroth: Astarte, the Phoenician moon-goddess.

203] Libyc Hammon: an Egyptian god, with the head of a ram, worshipped in the Libyan desert and later identified with Zeus.

204] Thammuz: a Phoenician god, corresponding to Adonis, whose death symbolized the passing of summer. See Ezekiel 8:14 and P.L. I, 446-57.

205] Moloch: worshipped by the Ammonites, who sacrificed their children to him: I Kings 11:7; II Kings 23:10.

211] brutish gods of Nile. The gods of ancient Egypt were associated with animals: Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, and goddess of the moon, was represented with a cow's homs; Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was represented with a hawk's head; Anubis, a son of Osiris, was brought up by Isis whose faithful guard he became; he was represented with the head of a jackal, which the Greeks mistook for that of a dog.

213] Osiris, the sungod of the Egyptians, was slain by his brother Set, identified by the Greeks with Typhon; his scattered remains were collected by Isis and placed in a series of sacred chests, deposited in temples in various cities: the worshipped ark is evidently one of these chests. Osiris was worshipped under the form of a bull Apis, at Memphis.

218] shroud: refuge or retreat.

219] timbrel'd: accompanied on the timbrel, a kind of tambourine.

220] sable-stoled sorcerers: priests (who were also magicians) wearing black robes.

226] Typhon was at once a serpent monster of Greek myth and by the Greeks identified with Set (see above, lines 213-17 note).

227] an allusion to the infant Hercules, slaying of the serpents which attacked him in his cradle.

240] youngest-teemed star: latest born star, the star of Bethlehem.

244] bright-harness'd: clad in bright armour.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: John Milton, Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Thomas Dring, 1673). Facs. edn. Complete Poetical Works reproduced in photographic facsimile. Comp. by H. F. Fletcher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1943-48. PR 3551 F52 Robarts Library.
First publication date: 1645
RPO poem editor: Hugh MacCallum, A. S. P. Woodhouse
RP edition: 3RP 1.225-31.
Recent editing: 1:2002/6/8

Composition date: 1629
Rhyme: aabccbdd


Other poems by John Milton