In the winter of 1629, John Milton penned a verse letter to his friend Charles Diodati. "I sing to the peace-bringing God descended from heaven," he wrote, "and … the cries of the infant God who, stabled under a poor roof, dwells in the heavens with his father" ("Elegia Sexta"). The poet had just turned twenty-one; Christmas had come and gone. In what seemed like “a single breath of inspiration,” Milton completed a poem that honored both the birth of Christ and his own advent as a Christian poet (Gordon Teskey, The Poetry of John Milton 51).

Teskey described "On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity" as Milton’s "first work of genius" (Teskey 24). By placing it at the front of his 1645 Poems, Milton likely intended to suggest that the poem represented the best of his juvenile work, untainted by earlier efforts. In this way, the virgin birth of the poem’s subject mirrors Milton’s entrance into the English canon (Andrea Walkden, "Foreign Policy and the Feast Day: Milton’s Poetic Nativity"). As many critics point out, Milton stages his artistic "coming of age" against the violent expulsion of pagan gods. While the introduction and conclusion pay homage to the newborn Christ, the poem’s central conflict concerns this clash of classical and Christian elements.

By Milton’s day, there was no doubt that Christianity had triumphed over paganism (Andrew Hui, "The Soundscape of the Dying Pagan Gods in Milton’s Nativity Ode" 367). So why did Milton feel the need to depict Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods fleeing from their thrones? According to Teskey, classical myths "constituted … the ground of the possibility of poetic speech." To properly serve the Christian God, Milton had to begin writing primarily in English, thereby freeing his work from the "plural gods of Latin poetry" (Teskey 40-46). William Shullenberger notes that the nativity ode marks a "paradigm shift in Milton’s poetic career." Whereas earlier works such as "Elegia quinta" sampled themes from classical mythology, "On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity" drives the pagan gods out of Milton’s work, and they return only to serve "Christian imagination, vocation, and ethics" ("Milton’s Pagan Counterpoetic" 75).

In stanza 17, a "horrid clang" announces the start of this fatal conflict (line 157). As Andrew Hui explains, Milton uses noise to represent "the static between the two ‘world systems’ of paganism… and Christianity." Through "cacophony and concordance," the poet "enfold[s] the multiple voices of antiquity and the singular voice of Christ into a narrative about his own poetic becoming" (Andrew Hui 354, 351-2). Anton Vander Zee similarly notices that "lyrically suspended space" creates tension throughout the poem ("Milton’s Mary: Suspending Song in the Nativity Ode" 399). On the other hand, Diane McColley suggests that Milton’s angelic choir — which sings "unexpressive notes to Heav’ns new-born Heir" (116) — indicates the poet’s desire to celebrate high art amid the "antiesthetic activities of the Reformation" ("A Table Richly Spread" 28). Meanwhile, Christina Fawcett demonstrates how Milton "attempt[s] to take on the voice of an Orphic singer." As the old gods fall, this singer aims to stop time and assert control over nature, expressing his anxiety through a dramatic crescendo — soft s and c sounds in stanza 5 lead to hard i sounds in stanza 13, then to the climax in stanza 17 — before dropping into a remorseful diminuendo when Christ’s inevitable death approaches ("The Orphic Singer of Milton’s Nativity Ode" 111-114).

Teskey offers a more formal analysis of the poem’s structure. First, the four stanzas of the proem each comprise six lines of iambic pentameter and an alexandrine, recalling the style of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and follow an ababbcc rhyme scheme. Next, the 27 stanzas of "The Hymn" use a "more complex eight-line stanza with lines of varying length, suggesting the odes composed by classical poets, especially Pindar and Horace." Teskey proposes that Milton’s strict adherence to his metrical scheme contributes to the "stateliness" of the poem (Teskey 55). Stepping back, the poem also breaks down into four thematic sections. In stanzas 1-12, nature (personified as a fallen woman) and the cosmos react to Christ’s arrival. From stanzas 13 to 18, the narrator anticipates how Christ will judge and redeem humanity, but then stanzas 19-26 interrupt to clear away the pagan gods (Teskey 56-57).

Finally, the last stanza returns to the nativity scene: "But see the Virgin blest / Hath laid her Babe to rest" (237-8). Because only Mary and Jesus are present, J. Martin Evans calls Milton’s representation of the nativity "completely dehumanized," reflecting the poet’s "Puritan distaste for allowing any intermediary to intrude between the individual soul and its maker" ("A Poem of Absences" 33). Hui adds that "the Nativity Ode strangely celebrates the incarnation of the new deity in historical time yet denies his material body in present time." Through this denial, Milton rejects the doctrine of transubstantiation, making the nativity ode a distinctly Protestant poem (Andrew Hui 352). Richard Rambuss likewise describes Milton’s approach to Christ as "anti-incarnative," noting also how "the Word is not made flesh but is instead made to be its tenant," lodged in a "darksom House of mortal Clay" ("Milton and the Incarnation" 148). Conversely, Zee accuses critics of missing Milton’s "formal and fraught encounter with the Marian element in the Nativity scene" (Zee 379). Reading Nature as a personification of Mary and "Virgin blest" as "Blessed Virgin," Zee argues that Milton "conceals his quiet act of Marian veneration precisely by bringing it close, by weaving it into the narrative structure of his hymn, and by making it the hidden heart and counterpoint of his sacred, often strident song" (Zee 387).

As Walkden points out, this song reverberates through Milton’s subsequent works. "The Passion" and "Upon the Circumcision" both reference the nativity ode’s angelic choir, giving this "precursor poem the status of a holy song" (Walkden). Teskey goes even further, writing that the nativity ode "left Milton supposing that the purpose of poetry is to unite heaven and earth, the divine and the human," thus setting the tone for his greatest artistry (Teskey 24).

Sarah Alpert