Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge … John Milton was a student here when he wrote his poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
My choice of Christmas poem today is ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ This ode is one of the earliest poems by John Milton (1608-1674), written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although Milton wrote this nativity ode in 1629, it was not published until 1645, when it appeared as the first poem in 1645 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 – to whom I shall return later next week – 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 celebrated his 21st birthday a few days earlier. Earlier that year, Milton had graduated BA at Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where I have been a guest and where I have preached.
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 his first poem to write. Milton 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 ode 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 when Christ sacrifices himself 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 Ralph Vaughan Williams as part of the text of his Christmas cantata, Hodie, in 1954.
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, John Milton
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav’n, by the Sun’s team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.
Tomorrow: ‘Nativity’ by John Donne
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin