“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 19-27

This is part 6 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 emphasis in stanza 25 is mine.

The Overthrow of Apollo by William Blake

William Blake, The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Pagan worshipers burn an offering to Apollo as his spirit flees its statue in fear. (The statue depicts Apollo’s defeat of the giant serpent Python, who had tormented his mother during her pregnancy.) To the right, a disheveled Nymph hides in a thicket to mourn, while above her, a train of refugee gods and goddesses fills the sky.

XIX.
The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
Will hollow shriek the steep of Delphos1 leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.

XX.
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
Edgèd with poplar pale,
From haunted spring, and dale
The parting Genius2 is with sighing sent;
With flower-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

XXI.
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars3 and Lemures4 moan with midnight plaint;
In urns, and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens5 at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat. 

XXII.
Peor and Baalim6
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;7
And moonèd Ashtaroth,8
Heaven’s Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine:
The Libyc Hammon9 shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz10 mourn.

XXIII.
And sullen Moloch,11 fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with cymbals’ ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis,12 and Orus,13 and the dog Anubis,14 haste.

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

William Blake, The Flight of Moloch (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.7 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Worshipers of Moloch clang together cymbals and blow on trumpets as part of their infant sacrifice ritual. As they do, Moloch’s winged spirit departs from the molded image. The advent of his enemy, Jesus, has scared him away.

XXIV.
Nor is Osiris15 seen
In Memphian16 grove or green,
Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest;17
Nought but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain, with timbreled anthems dark,
The sable-stolèd18 Sorcerers bear his worshiped ark.

XXV.
He feels from Judah’s land
The dreaded Infant’s hand;
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;19
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon20 huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true, 
Can in his swaddling bands control the damnèd crew. 

XXVI.
So, when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to the infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted fays21
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.22

XXVII.
But see! the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest,
Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
Heaven’s youngest-teemèd23 star
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

Night of Peace by William Blake

William Blake, The Night of Peace (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25.6 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: The star that led the Wise Men to Christ’s stable is shown here as an angel’s lantern, which she holds up high above her parked chariot to illuminate the scene. At the ground level, four other angels sit by in brightly colored armor, in the service of their Lord.

___________________

NOTES

1. ^ Delphos: Delphi.

2. ^ Genius (pl. Genii): household guardian spirit.

3. ^ Lars (Lares): Roman household gods regarded as the deified spirits of mortals.

4. ^ Lemures: revered spirits of the dead.

5. ^ Flamens: priests who were assigned to one of fifteen deities with official cults during the Roman Republic.

6. ^ Peor and Baalim:Peor” refers to Baal-peor (Baal of Mount Peor), the primary deity of Moab, whose cult Israel was attracted to for a brief time (Numbers 25:1-5; cf. Psalm 106:28). “Baal” (lit. “lord” or “owner”) is a general name that every Canaanite district applied to its local deities. “Baalim” is its plural form. The name “Baal” occurs 63 times in the KJV; see list here.

7. ^ twice-battered god of Palestine: Dagon, an ancient Mesopotamian fertility god. First Samuel 5:2-5 records an episode in which the Philistines steal the ark of the covenant (a vessel in which Yahweh’s presence was said to reside) from the Israelites and place it in Dagon’s temple in Ashdod. The next morning, they awake to find Dagon’s image toppled over from its pedestal, lying prostrate before the ark. They restore it to its elevated position, but the next day, they again find the image on the floor, this time with its head and hands broken off.

8. ^ Ashtoroth: plural form of “Ashtoreth,” a Canaanite goddess associated with fertility, sexuality, and war and worshiped especially by the Sidonians (1 Kings 11:5, 33; 2 Kings 23:13). She resembles the Babylonian Ishtar and Greek Aphrodite.

9. ^ Hammon (Ammon / Amun): a Libyan god who was represented as a ram and identified with Jupiter.

10. ^ Thammuz (Tammuz): a dying-and-rising fertility god of Babylon resembling the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Adonis. He was worshiped every summer in a weeping ceremony, in which devotees mourned his being slain by the wild boar of winter (cf. Ezekiel 8:14). Then he was worshiped again in the spring for having resurrected.

11. ^ Moloch (Molech): a calf-headed Ammonite god to whom parents sacrificed their children by fire. Not much is known about him other than what is written about him in the Old Testament and passed down through rabbinical tradition. Rabbi Rashi of the twelfth century wrote that Molech was “made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.” English traveler George Sandys mentioned the additional use of trumpets (A Relation of a Journey, 1615, p. 186), which William Blake depicts in The Flight of Moloch.

12. ^ Isis: One of the most important deities of ancient Egypt, Isis was a mother figure, a healer, and the arbiter of fertility rites. She represents empowered femininity and is depicted with a throne on her head.

13. ^ Orus (Horus): The Egyptian god of the sun, war, and protection, Horus was often depicted as either a falcon or a man with a falcon’s head.

14. ^ Anubis: a jackal-headed Egyptian god who was in charge of weighing souls in the afterlife.

15. ^ Osiris: The Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris is usually depicted as a green-skinned man with a pharaoh’s beard, wearing a crown with a large curling ostrich feather on each side and holding a shepherd’s crook in one hand and a flail in the other. He is associated with rebirth and the seasons.

16. ^ Memphian: Egyptian. Memphis was the capital city of Egypt during the Old Kingdom.

17. ^ sacred chest (cf. worshiped ark): According to Herodotus (Histories 2.63), the Egyptian festival of Ares in Pampremis included carrying an image of Osiris in a gilded wooden box.

18. ^ sable-stolèd: black-robed.

19. ^ eyn: eyes.

20. ^ Typhon: In Greek myth, Typhon or Typhoneus was a fire-breathing storm-giant with 100 snake heads growing out of his torso, and viper coils for legs. See Theogony 820-872 by Hesiod and Apollodorus 1.6.3.

21. ^ fays: fairies, frequently associated in English poetry with Nymphs.

22. ^ moon-loved maze: the forests much loved by the moon goddess Diana and frequented by fairies.

23. ^ youngest-teemed: latest born.

PARAPHRASE

Stanza 19: All the pagan priests and priestesses and the gods for whom they mediate are rendered speechless by Christ’s birth; their deceitful prophecies can no longer sound forth from the temples. Thus stripped of his power and influence, Apollo leaves his shrine shrieking. The oracle tries to connect with him but cannot.

Stanza 20: A sound of weeping echoes over mountain and sea, and sighing is heard throughout the valleys, as the guardian spirits are shamefully displaced from their protective posts. The Nymphs retreat into thickets and mourn the spirits’ departure, tearing out their flower-strewn hair.

Stanza 21: From inside their graves and atop household hearths, the deified spirits of the dead wail. The wails can be heard rising up from the temple altars too, scaring the ministering priests. The temples seem to sweat with fearful anxiety as their resident deities take flight.

Stanza 22: Baal and Dagon are among those who flee. Ashtareth, too, for the candles that had illuminated her shrine are snuffed out. Ammon bows his horned head in defeat. But still some pagans vainly worship on. Devotees of Tammuz, for example, carry on with their customary rites.

Stanza 23: In the middle of a sacrifice ritual, Moloch flees his burning image, while worshipers futilely clap their cymbals together and call out his name. The Egyptian gods likewise make haste.

Stanza 24: Osiris can no longer be found at play or at rest, but in hell. Yet still his devotees clap their tambourines and bear his sacred image from temple to temple.

Stanza 25: Blinded by the light of Jesus coming from Bethlehem, Osiris and the other gods dare not remain on Earth any longer—not even the snake-monster Typhon. From his lowly manger, Jesus routs the whole lot of them, demonstrating that he alone is God.

Stanza 26: So this evening as the Sun lets down his red bed curtains and rests his head for the night on his ocean-pillow, and the night-horses gallop across the sky, making it black, the gods trudge off to the prison Christ had built for them, there to die.

Stanza 27: Back at the stable, Mary has laid her baby to rest, and with this I will conclude: the young Lady Star has parked her chariot directly above the scene and holds up a lantern to it, while outside the stable a troop of angels in brightly colored armor stands ready in the service of their Lord.

This concludes the poem. Closing comments to come in part 7.

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2 Responses to “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 19-27

  1. Pingback: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: Stanzas 13-18 | The Jesus Question

  2. Pingback: “Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton and Wiliam Blake « ORTHODOX CITY HERMIT

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