Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge, where John Milton was a student … the third movement of ‘Hodie’ is based on a fragment of a poem John Milton wrote here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
For these few days in this Christmas season, I invite you to join me each morning in a series of Christmas meditations as I listen to the Christmas cantata Hodie (‘This Day’) by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
In this cantata, Vaughan Williams draws on English Christmas poetry from diverse sources, including John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert. These poems reflect a variety of Christmas experiences and they are bound together in this cantata by the narration of the Nativity story in the Gospel narratives.
With its blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, Hodie flows with a vitality and inventiveness that belie a work written by Vaughan Williams in his old age.
This morning I am listening to the third movements, the Song ‘It was the winter wild.’ This movement is a gentle song for solo soprano, cooloured by the sound of the women’s choir. Here Vaughan Williams sets a fragment of the poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ one of the earliest poems by John Milton (1608-1674), written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
3, Song: ‘It was the winter wild’
It was the winter wild,
While the Heaven-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathise:
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
No war or battle's sound
Was heard the world around,
The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood,
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with aweful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kissed,
Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmèd wave.
The women of the chorus join the soloist for portions of the last verse.
John Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’
John Milton’s poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ was written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although it was written in 1629, it was not published until 1645, when it appeared as the first poem in the Poems of Mr John Milton.
Milton wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval. He is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, which earned him an international reputation in his own lifetime. William Hayley has called Milton the “greatest English author.” His poetry and his prose reflect deep convictions and they address religious and contemporary political issues, including censorship, religious freedom and divorce.
Samuel Johnson praised Milton’s Paradise Lost as “a poem which, considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind.” Johnson’s praise is true praise indeed, for the Lichfield writer was a committed Tory and the recipient of royal patronage, and he dismissed Milton for his politics, describing him as an “acrimonious and surly republican.”
Later, Milton had a great impact on the Romantic movement in England, and Wordsworth called upon him to rise from the dead and aid in returning England to its former glory.
Milton wrote this ode in December 1629, having celebrating celebrated his 21st birthday a few days earlier. Earlier that year, he had graduated BA at Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Christ’s College, where I have stayed in the past and where I have preached and lectured.
At first, Milton considered ordination as an Anglican priest, and stayed on at Cambridge to receive his MA in 1632. However, he never proceeded to ordination. After receiving his MA, Milton retired to his father’s home in Hammersmith, and spent six years in self-directed private study there and at Horton in Berkshire. He then travelled though France, Switzerland and Italy, returning to England as the Civil War began to unfold. Back in England, he continued to write, supporting himself as a school teacher.
By the mid-1650s, Milton was blind, yet he married a second and a third time. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he went into hiding. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He was arrested and jailed briefly, and subsequently lived out his days in London and in ‘Milton’s Cottage’ in Chalfont St Giles.
In his later years, he never went to any religious services and responded with sarcasm to accounts of sermons from Nonconformist chapels. He died in 1674 and was buried at Saint Giles in Cripplegate.
The Great Gate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Milton was a student in 1629 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
At the time Milton wrote ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ in Cambridge, his Puritan contemporaries were stepping up their opposition to the celebration of Christmas Day. But, with Christmas Day approaching in December 1629, and conscious of both his own birthday and his birth, Milton, who was still at Christ’s College, was moved to write this ode about Christ’s birth.
Although the ode was the first poem in his 1645 collection, this was not the first poem he had written, for he wrote many of his Latin and Greek poems at an earlier time. Yet this ode often serves as an introduction to Milton’s poetry.
This is one of a set of poems that celebrates important Christian events: Christ’s birth, the feast of the Circumcision, and Good Friday. These poems place Milton alongside other English poets of the 17th century, including George Herbert, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. At the same time, however, it also reflects the origins of his opposition to Archbishop William Laud and his supporters within the Church of England.
The poem describes Christ’s Incarnation and his overthrow of earthly and pagan powers, and also connects Christ’s Incarnation with his Crucifixion, for God becomes human in Christ at his Nativity to redeem fallen humanity, and humanity is redeemed in Christ’s sacrifice at the Crucifixion.
Milton also connects the Nativity with the creation of the world, a theme that he expands later in Book VII of Paradise Lost. Like the other two poems of the set, and like other poems at the time, the ode describes a narrator within the poem and experiencing the Nativity.
Thomas Corns says this poem is “Milton’s first manifestation of poetic genius and, qualitatively,” and he puts it among his most significant poetic works – even before Paradise Lost. He also claims that the ode “rises in many ways above the rather commonplace achievements of Milton’s other devotional poems and stands out from the mass of other early Stuart poems about Christmas.”
The first complete setting of this ode was undertaken in 1928 by the Cambridge composer Cyril Rootham, with a setting for soli, chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra. Later, portions of the ode were set by Vaughan Williams in 1954, as part of the text of his Christmas cantata, Hodie, which we are listening to this morning.
Tomorrow’s reflection: ‘Hodie’, 4 and 5, Narration and Choral