“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 1-7

This is part 3 of a series on John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Read part 1 here. Read the complete poem here.

THE HYMN

I.
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 sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty Paramour.

II.
Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

III.
But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready Harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.

IV.
No war, or battail’s sound,
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hookèd chariot stood,
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And Kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

V.
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 charmed wave.

VI.
The stars, with deep amaze,
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

VII.
And, though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head of shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.

Blake nativity

William Blake, The Descent of Peace (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.4 x 25.5 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Peace breaks through the heavenly spheres, dispersing the clouds and waving her myrtle wand, while Nature (below) covers her nakedness with a snowy veil as she pays reverence to her Lord.

___________________

In these seven stanzas, Milton uses personification to color the context of Christ’s birth. Inanimate nature is imagined as a glamorous woman who, taking cue from her Lord, strips off her jewelry, makeup, and other finery, for these things would have been inappropriate for a stable birth. This stripping bare signifies winter. Nature prepares herself for Christ’s coming. 

The sun is personified as Nature’s lusty lover—their lovemaking makes her pregnant with new life. He presumably has a big ego (he’s the sun, after all), but when he sees Christ for the first time, he is put in his place. There is no way he can measure up to this amazing new Light.

The abstract notion of peace is imagined as a winged woman sent by God, who with a wave of her myrtle wand brings peace over the earth, casting a vision of what the coming kingdom will look like, and signifying its founding value.

Everyone turns their focus Christward and is captivated by the strange majesty of this little babe, a majesty that shines brighter than the sun but that takes up residence in a dank and dusty stable.

Here is a paraphrase of this section of the poem:

Stanza 1: In preparation for Christ’s humble arrival, Nature removes all her adornments—just as Christ disrobes himself of glory, she too disrobes herself of all her glorious leaves and blooms. No more cavorting with her lover, Mr. Sun. Good-bye, Mr. Sun. It’s time to turn my attention to another.

Stanza 2: Now naked and vulnerable, Nature feels ashamed. She asks the wind to please cover her with a white veil (of snow), so as to hide her indecencies and thus make her presentable to the coming king.

Stanza 3: God sends down Peace to prepare the king’s way. Breaking through the clouds with her turtledove wings, she comes crowned with an olive garland and waving a myrtle branch.

Stanza 4: Under her influence, all the armies of the world put away their swords, and governments their business, sensing that something is about to happen.

Stanza 5: The night that Christ is born, all is calm. The winds kiss the oceans and whisper sweetly to them, and the oceans cease their roiling.

Stanza 6: The stars are so transfixed by the newborn king that they forget to retire for the morning. (Here “Lucifer” [lit. “morning star”] refers not to Satan, but to the sun.) God lets them look on a little while longer, but then bids them go.

Stanza 7: The sun is hesitant to come out, though, because he is embarrassed—his light is far inferior to the infinitely bright Light that was born that day.

Read part 4.

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One Response to “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 1-7

  1. Pingback: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Preface | The Jesus Question

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