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“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” 25 December 1629
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  27 Sep 2008

Ostensibly, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is a “humble ode” given to Christ as a birthday gift (24-25). More than this, however, the poem is an invocation in the magical rather than the poetic sense. The morning of Christ’s nativity is not an event occurring some 1629 years prior to the poem’s writing, on some historically uncertain date, but rather Christmas Day, 1629.1 The first line should read “This is the month, and this the happy morn”: this is not a only a celebration of an anniversary (though it is that), but a magical incantation, drawing the moment of its composition close to the moment of Christ’s birth, making time run (however temporarily) in a 1629-year circle. Christ is being born as Milton writes.

Milton, having just turned 21 on 9 December, having taken his B.A. at Cambridge on 26 March, dedicated to the program known as Gradus ad Parnassium that would make him England’s Homer, in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” transposes himself and his readers to Christ’s original birth. This is more cosmological time travel than some weak poem using the occasion of Christmas to praise Christ. Milton continually shifts from a historical perspective, using the past tense, to the perspective of one present, witnessing the change of an epoch.

Nature herself notes Christ’s arrival, reacting like Adam and Eve in Genesis, suddenly aware of her “naked shame” (40). The stars too respond: the sun “hid his head for shame, / As his inferior flame, / The new enlightened world no more should need” (80-83). The world, ever at constant war, is suddenly at peace (stanza IV) -- a historical allusion to the Pax Romana. From “The oracles are dumb” at the opening of stanza XIX to stanza XXV, Milton offers a succession of portraits of paganism struck impotent, from the silence of the pagan oracles to the withdrawal in flight of the pagan gods themselves. Christ is “the dreaded infant” (222) who “Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew” (228), but he is as humble as he is powerful: indeed, long before Paradise Regain’d, Christ’s humanity finds emphasis: born in a “rude manger” (31), he, “with us” (12), is confined within “a darksome house of mortal clay” (14). An era has changed, Milton tells us again and again, and not just more than a millennia and a half before the inscribing.

As Christ was a “harbinger” (49) the first time around, so is Christ again in 1629 -- and Milton is his prophet. Though Milton was far from the times of civil war, the notion of England as God’s chosen state on Earth was already firmly established. Many saw Catholics as not even Christians, as like unto the pagans who Milton has Christ banish.2 Prevalent was the notion of Christ’s imminent return. Milton encodes all of this into a poem ostensibly praising Christ. Note the tense as Milton writes:

For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
     Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold [and God]
And speckled vanity
Will sicken soon and die. (133-137)

Note that “the age of gold” is uniquely utopian rhetoric. Milton continues in this vein: “Yea Truth, and Justice then / Will down return to men” (141-142). In uniquely millenarian rhetoric, Milton writes that “heaven as at some festival, / Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall” (147-148).3

But Milton already knows that this process, in England as with Christ, will not be easy. He qualifies his vision by writing “not yet” (150), a sudden break from heavenly dreams of a utopia, a new golden age, on Earth. In contrast to Christ’s “smiling infancy” (151), Milton shockingly juxtaposes “the bitter cross” (152). Utopia will come, God will return, but “first ... / The wakeful trump of doom must thunder” (155-156). I am not saying here that Milton is predicting the civil wars per se, merely that he is wisely noting that this new golden age of closeness to God, in which Catholic paganism is thrown off, will not come easily. In secular, more modern terms, we, in our attempt to establish a finer, most just world out of this , must we willing to accept “that bitter cross” in this “rude” and “darksome” material world.

Milton ends the poem with a similar maneuver, breaking his cosmological vision by abruptly returning to sight, as if Christ’s birth is occurring before his eyes in 1629: “But see the virgin blest, / Hath laid her babe to rest” (237-238). The Lord is “sleeping” (242) -- then as now, as in 1629 and as every reader rereads the incantation and thus reenacts its spell. In his time, Milton expected and yearned for success. For us today, Milton’s alterations of time and space have a remarkably secular resonance -- as does so much of Milton -- for such an apparently religious poem (though religion, for Milton, is a broad matter, taking in government and inter-personal relations as well as what we would narrowly think as worship): we too live in a troubled age and are called, by Milton if not by Christ, to assume “the bitter cross” to herald a new, more golden age in which justice, if not heaven, is nearer.

NOTES

This essay was first published online on 27 January 2003.
1 In 1645’s Poems of Mr John Milton, in which the poem made its first appearance, it was headed “Compos’d 1629,” and we are told, late in Milton’s Elegia sexta (or Elegy VI), that it was indeed written on Christmas, begun before dawn.
2 Milton’s title itself, in its use of “Nativity” instead of “Christmas” (Christ-mass) indicates a clear preference for English Protestantism over Catholicism.
3 I do not mean to suggest that Milton, at this point (unlike the Civil War years and afterward), has a detailed notion of what this utopia will be like; indeed, as he did not know the nature of the epic he would write but knew he would write an epic, Milton avoids any religious or political particulars of his millenarian vision although the rough contour is already there.

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Essays on Milton by Julian Darius:
Invocation to the Poetic Journey to Epic: “Hail native Language” (in “At a Vacation Exercise”)
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” 25 December 1629