A few decades prior to writing his famous epic, Paradise Lost, John Milton composed this thirty-one-stanza ode—his first major work in English. Written in 1629 when he was just 21, the poem examines the cosmic significance of the incarnation, celebrating Christ’s triumph over the gods of paganism from the manger.
Regarding the poem’s composition, Milton wrote to his friend Charles Diodati,
I am singing the King of Heaven, bringer of peace, and the fortunate days promised by the Holy Book, the wanderings of God and the stabling under a poor roof of Him who rules with his Father the realms above; the star that led the wizards, the hymning of angels in the air and the gods flying to their endangered fanes. This poem I made as a birthday gift for Christ; the first light of Christmas dawn brought me the theme.” (qtd. by Walter Taylor Field, 1907)
Between 1803 and 1815, visionary poet and visual artist William Blake painted on commission two sets of watercolors to illustrate the poem—one for the Rev. Joseph Thomas (the “Thomas set”), and one for Thomas Butts (the “Butts set”). Each set contains six watercolors, and there is much resemblance between the two. The list of illustrations is as follows. (You’ll notice that not all the stanzas are illustrated.)
- The Descent of Peace (stanzas 1-3)
- The Annunciation to the Shepherds (stanzas 8-12)
- The Old Dragon (stanza 18)
- The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (stanzas 19-23)
- The Flight of Moloch (stanza 23)
- The Night of Peace (stanza 27)
As we move toward Christmas and Epiphany in the next few weeks, I will split up the poem into a series of bite-size posts, expositing the text along the way and contributing some of my own reflections. The illustrations I use will be from the Thomas set.
Read part 2.