This is part 4 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 Shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan1
Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Answering the stringèd noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat2 the airy Region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.
At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shamefaced Night arrayed;
The helmèd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive3 notes, to Heaven’s newborn Heir.
Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the Sons of Morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced World on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.
1. ^ Pan: [Note by Merritt Y. Hughes] Virgil’s “guardian of flocks” (Georgics 1.17), who is clothed with mystery and power in the Orphic Hymn to Pan, was associated with Christ as the Good Shepherd in Renaissance poetry. Christ, says the Glosse to Maye in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, “calleth himselfe the greate and good shepherd. The name is most rightly . . . applyed to him for Pan signifieth all, or omnipotent, which is onely the Lord Jesus.”
2. ^ the hollow round of Cynthia’s seat: The moon. (Cynthia is another name for Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon.)
3. ^ unexpressive: Inexpressible.
Stanza 8: A group of simple-minded shepherds was watching over their flocks, thinking of nothing else but their sheep, or maybe their wives back home.
Stanza 9: When suddenly, they heard an orchestra of strings start playing as no humans had ever played before. Then a divine voice joined in with beautiful song. The air, not wanting the song to end, reverberated the closing note of every phrase.
Stanza 10: Nature, on hearing the beautiful harmonies, felt that she no longer served a purpose, for the music brought heaven to earth more expertly than she ever had or could.
Stanza 11: Then the solo voice turned into a full choir of angels, all lit up in the night sky.
Stanza 12: Such beautiful music had never been sung since the beginning of time, when God laid the foundations of the world.
Read part 5.
Pingback: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 1-7 | The Jesus Question
Pingback: “Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton and Wiliam Blake « ORTHODOX CITY HERMIT
Thank you so much! This summary greatly helped me understand this “hymn”