This is part 2 of a series on John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Read part 1 here. Read the complete poem here.
This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven’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 Heaven’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, Heavenly 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 heaven, 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 Wisards haste with odours sweet!
Oh! run; prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessèd 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.
As so many artists (literary and visual) of his time did, Milton places himself in the story of the Nativity, but he does so obliquely, so as not to draw attention to himself. Personal pronouns are entirely missing from the preface—instead of being self-referential, Milton gives all the credit for the poem to the Holy Spirit, his “Muse,” who filled and inspired him as he wrote. So although it is implied that the poem is a gift that Milton offers to baby Jesus, just as the Wise Men offered their gifts, the giver is named as the Holy Spirit. Milton is but the vehicle of his gift.
The last line of the preface is a reference to Isaiah 6:5-7, where an angel purifies the prophet’s lips with a hot coal taken from God’s altar. Milton’s implicit prayer is that God would purify his pen, as he did Isaiah’s lips, so that the gospel presentation in this poem would be clear, articulate, free of error, and compelling—its truth and relevance felt, its power invited in and experienced by all the poem’s readers/listeners. And so that the Lord Jesus, the poem’s hero, the one whose praises Milton sings, be honored above all.
Here’s a paraphrase of the four stanzas above:
Stanza 1: Today (Christmas) is the day redemption came to Earth—the day our Savior was born. It is just as the prophets foretold, and as the Father predetermined: God himself has come to release us from the penalty of death and bring us eternal peace.
Stanza 2: Though belonging already to a perfect community of three (the Trinity), and possessing all power in heaven and earth, for love of his creation, he left that heavenly community and his exalted position, with the goals of expansion and promotion—he wanted to incorporate us into his fellowship, and to set us on high to rule with him.
Stanza 3: Holy Spirit, don’t you have a gift for the baby Jesus—to give now, while it’s still nighttime, and the stars are looking attentively on?
Stanza 4: Here come the Wise Men! Hurry, Spirit! Run to meet them at the Savior’s feet, bringing this verse. May it ever rise up to heaven and mingle with the angels’ praise.
Read part 3.
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