The Nativity of Christ by Francesco Francia. c. 1490.
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 child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*
In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself, first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.
However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher. For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”
I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.
Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.
Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.