By Guest Writer David E. Miller
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” affectionately called The Nativity Ode, is John Milton’s first great poem. The Nativity Ode is an elaborate carol1 that describes how the world, sinful and ashamed, became the reluctant site of Christ’s birth. The poem begins and ends peacefully but contains a surprising, violent commotion in the middle, when all the shrines to pagan gods are paradoxically destroyed by the mere presence of a defenseless baby—Jesus. Such a startling combination of sensuous and shocking images could drown out more lightweight songs like “Frosty the Snowman” that radio stations play on a loop this time of year.
These days, not many people know much of, let alone have read Milton, the poet who wrote the famous work Paradise Lost. Some background: Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Following the generation of great writers led by Shakespeare, he would have only been 7 years old when Shakespeare died in 1616. Milton was only 21 when he wrote The Nativity Ode.
Let’s take a closer look at this important writer’s first great poem. You can read The Nativity Ode here.
A Poem in Two Parts
An ode is an “extended lyric poem” that is “written to celebrate a heroic person or achievement.”2 The Nativity Ode is divided into two parts: the prelude and the hymn. “Prelude” refers to an introductory section of a poem; a hymn is simply a religious song. What is unique about Milton’s poem is the way in which he carefully frames his own story as a young poet eager to prove his talents, within the world of The Nativity Ode.
In the prelude, Milton goes to great lengths to explain that he wrote the poem extemporaneously on the morning of December 25, 1629 when he was only 21, as noted above. Whether or not this is true is up for debate. But the force of the poem originates in Milton’s anxiety to write something that befits the occasion of Christ’s birth, who:
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksom House of mortal Clay. (ll. 13-14)
Milton calls his poem a “humble” gift, something to lay “lowly” at Jesus’ feet. However, he also imagines that his muse could carry his poem to Jesus before the wise men could arrive. That means his poem would be the first earthly greeting Jesus receives, to “Have thou the honor first, thy Lord to greet” (l. 26).
Some readers are startled by what they perceive as a mean-spirited competition between Milton and the wise men. Perhaps we forget that Milton’s plan to “prevent” the wise men is only a fantasy, and one of a few ways that Milton plays with temporality in the poem, perhaps imagining how time appears different from the eternal perspective of Jesus.
Nature, Peace, and Fate
In The Nativity Ode, readers find the familiar characters of the gospel account like Mary and the shepherds. But the most difficult part about the hymn is that Milton also employs allegorical figures who symbolize ideas like Truth and Mercy. Three allegorical characters in particular—Nature, Peace, and Fate—have the largest roles in defining the poem’s theological views.
We first meet Nature who represents the natural world that we can perceive with our senses (hills, plains, fields). Nature also symbolizes the fallen nature of humankind. Appropriately resembling Eve from Genesis, still tormented by her fall from paradise, Nature is:
Confounded, that her Makers eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities. (ll. 35-6)
To ease Nature’s fear and shame, the allegorical figure Peace, “waving wide her myrtle wand,” slides silently though the sky and strikes a universal Peace throughout the land. All battles cease, warring kings are suddenly mute, there are no storms, the oceans are calm, and even the stars appear to briefly stand still. But the speaker of the poem realizes that the silent night he depicts might only be temporary, or just a product of his imagination, because the world is still a fallen place.
The figure Fate steps in and unexpectedly condemns the speaker for indulging in such a fantasy, because the fallen world will not be redeemed until Christ completes his work by dying on the cross:
But wisest Fate says no,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe lies yet in smiling Infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss (ll. 149-53)
According to Fate, Milton’s fantasy borders on idolatry. Milton has mislead us in stanzas III-XV, deceptive as they are beautiful, because they suggest that peace could just happen with the wave of a wand, without the death of Christ, His Resurrection, and the Day of Judgment. At the time of Jesus’s birth, the work to save the world has not yet been accomplished.
The Parade of Demons: a Paradigm Shift
As if Milton’s competing with wise men to greet the Christ child first weren’t startling enough for readers, surely they’ll be baffled that Milton includes demons in his carol. However, Milton has an important theological reason to bring demons into his Christmas ode. His purpose is to demonstrate the effect of Jesus’ birth on the systems of belief and supernatural figures that preceded His advent. There is no other way to describe it than to call it a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions.
From parts XVIII to XXVI of the Ode, Milton vividly depicts what happens to all the old pagan priests and gods now that Jesus has come to the world. Pagan priests and oracles who once were visited by kings, generals, and warriors are stripped of their power to see the future. There are tears and shrieks as nymphs and other mythological figures are expelled from their sacred forests. Baal, Moloch, and other demons are forced to leave their temples, shrines, and idols.
In dismay their worshipers desperately clang cymbals and dance helplessly around “the furnace blue” (l. 210) in a vain effort to conjure these spirits again. Even fairies, called “Fayes” in the poem, are forced to leave the English countryside. We watch as each of these figures noisily follows after the other in a meandering line into the darkness. Milton even offers his readers a glimpse of Satan himself, the old Dragon, who
…wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his folded tail. (ll. 167-71)
These images are not part of the gospel account of Christ’s birth that we find in the Bible, but they are part of the theology Milton wants to explain in the poem. Milton asserts Christ’s victory over Satan’s armies, and the establishment of a Christendom that will continue to expand until His triumphant return.
Some readers and scholars, though, have wondered if Milton enjoys writing about demons and pagan gods like Baal a little too much for a Puritan. Is he explaining his theology or indulging in a temptation to dwell on classic myths and gods he enjoyed studying at college, in Cambridge? Perhaps Milton also regrets the loss of the more gentle spirits like the nymphs and fairies from the tales of his childhood.
These ideas are certainly worth considering. And the poem ends quietly enough for us to pause and think about what we’ve been asked to accept as a companion to the Christmas story. When you read the poem, see if you think the “parade of demons” is appropriate or out of place in a poem about Christ’s birth.
Finally, The Nativity: an Expectant Peace
In the last stanza, Mary tucks her baby snugly into the manger as a squadron of angels armed for battle guards the scene. The final, dignified moment is the perfect counterpoint to the eager, poetic voice we encountered in the prelude. Milton’s impatience to cut his poetic teeth that we saw in the Prelude is appropriately balanced here by the quieter, more reverent section where the angels sit in “order serviceable.” The angels are content to be in the presence of, and to wait on, their Lord, who asks nothing of his servants but to expectantly wait for his command.
Much later, when Milton had gone blind from untreated glaucoma, he presents a different version of being content to wait upon the Lord. But this time it would be himself, not the angels, who would play the role of waiting servant. In “Sonnet 19” (read it here), frustrated by the obvious problem his blindness posed to writing poetry, he concludes that God’s “Kingly” state is not improved by man’s talents. Like the angels at Christ’s Nativity, Milton himself is asked to “only stand and wait” (l. 14) for God to appoint the time of service.
Though both The Nativity Ode and Sonnet 19 end on this note of peaceful waiting, it is interesting that the moment of peace may not be long. As Christmas-tide passes and the baby Jesus grows into Christ the redeemer, much action is bound to ensue. Here at the end of Milton’s Nativity Ode is a call to celebrate the peaceful thought that the birth of Jesus into the world will change it utterly for the better.
John Milton painting from National Portrait Gallery: By Unknown 17th century artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Bouguere’s “Song of the Angels”: William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
1Martz, Louis L. Milton: Poet of Exile. Second ed. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1986. p. 53.
2Flannagan, Roy. The Riverside Milton. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. p. 34.