Tuesday, December 18, 2007


THis is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'ns 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.

from On The Morning of Christ's Nativity by John Milton

John Milton's wonderful Christmas poem about Christ's birth, written in 1629, goes beyond the good news of our redemption to include the redemption of the universe and all that the Lord had created. And Nature so personified, recognizes this is "not the season" to "wanton with the sun her lusty paramour." Instead, she lays aside her "gawdy trim" in reflection of her Lord laying aside his dignity, to be born of a young maiden in a cave in a nowhere town in Judah.

Onely with speeches fair
She woo's the gentle Air
To hide her guilty front with innocent Snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinfull blame,
The Saintly Vail of Maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Makers eyes
Should look so neer upon her foul deformities.

She hides her breasts; her naked shame "pollute with sinfull blame": Nature knows of her fallenness, having received and now sharing it with the first mother and father. It is Winter, let it snow!--and by so doing attempt to cover her sinfulness, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden, and as all Old Men do.

But Christ the babe full of wisdom and comfort brings a Harbinger, Peace, to comfort the earth.

But he her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyd Peace,
She crown'd with Olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphear,
His ready Harbinger,
With Turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing,
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

I first came across this poem in high school, when the choir I was a part of sang a musical setting of it. The setting was beautiful, and did what music can do: framed the poem in rich, subtle, sculpted harmonies that to this day always are in my head as I read Milton's lines.

Milton, of course, was bobbing in a sea of classical readings and allusions. Most of us read Milton like we read the Psalms: missing much of what the writer is trying to convey because we don't have the language (All of the punning that seems to be going on in Hebrew) or the familiarity with the classical stories (Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's The Iliad, or Virgil's The Annead, etc) to pick out the little winks and nods of his verse.

Still, there is much to enjoy and wonder at in his poetry. On The Morning is a very fine place to start.

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