Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity - John Milton

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav'ns 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 Heav'ns 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 darksom house of mortal clay.

Say Heavn'ly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no vers, no hymn, or solemn strein,
To welcom him to this his new abode,
Now while the Heav'n by the Suns 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 rode
The Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet,
     And joyn thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire.

                         The Hymn

It was the Winter wild,
While the Heav'n-born-child,
     All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
     With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.

Onely with speeches fair
She woos the gentle Air
     To hide her guilty front with innocent Snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinfull blame,
     The Saintly Vail of Maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Makers eyes
Should look so neer upon her foul deformities.

But he her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace;
     She crown'd with Olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphear
His ready Harbinger,
     With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing,
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sounds
Was heard the World around:
     The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
     The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

But peacefull was the night
Wherein the Prince of light
     His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
     Whispering new joyes to the mild OCean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixt in stedfast gaze,
     Bending one way their pretious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
     Or Lucifer that often warn'd them thence;
But in their glimmering Orbs did glow,
Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
     The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,
And his head for shame,
As his infeiour flame,
     The new-englight'n'd world no more shoould need;
He saw a greater Sun appear
Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.

The Shepherds on the Lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
     Sate simply chatting in a rustick row;
Full little thought they than,
That the mighty Pan
     Was kindly com to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or els their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busie keep.

When such musick sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
     As never was by mortall singer strook,
Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
     As all their souls in blisfull rapture took:
The Air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav'nly close.

Nature that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
     Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was don,
     And that her raign had here its last fulfilling;
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heav'n and Earth in happier union.

At last surrounds their sight
A Globe of circular light,
     That with long beams the shame-fac't night array'd,
The helm'd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
     Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displaid,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav'ns new-born Heir.

Such Musick (as 'tis said)
Before was never made,
     But when of old the sons of morning sun,
While the Creator Great
His constellations set,
     And the well-ballanc't world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltring waves their oozy channel keep.

Ring out ye Crystall spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
     (If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time;
     And let the Base of Heav'ns deep Organ blow,
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th' Angelick symphony.

For if such holy Song
Enwrap our fancy long,
     Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And speckl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
     And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell it self will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
     Orb'd in a Rain-bow; and like glories wearing
Mercy will sit between,
Thron'd in Celestiall sheen,
     With radiant feet the tissued clouds down stearing,
And Heav'n as at some festivall,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

But wisest Fate sayes no,
This must not yet be so,
     The Babe lies yet in smiling Infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
    So both himself and us to glorifie:
Yet first to those ychain'd in sleep,
The wakefull trump of doom must thunder through the deep.

With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang
     While the rred fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:
The aged Earth agast
With terrour of that blast,
     Shall from the surface to the center shake,
When at the dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.

And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
     But now begins; for from this happy day
Th' old Dragon under ground
In straiter limits bound,
     Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wroth to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
     Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
     With hollow shreik the sttep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-ey'd Priest from the prophetic cell.

The lonely mountains o're,
And the resounding shore,
     A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
     The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flowr-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thicket mourn.

In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth,
     The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
     Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar forgoes his wonted seat.

Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their Temples dim,
     With that twise batter'd god of Palestine,
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'ns Queen and Mother both,
     Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn.

And sullen Moloch fled,
Hath left in shadows dred
     His burning Idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with Cymbals ring,
They call the grisly king,
     In dismall dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis hast.

Nor is Orisis seen
In Memphian Grove, or Green,
     Trampling th' unshowr'd Grass with lowings loud:
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
     Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain with Timbrel'd Anthems dark
The sable-stoled Sorcerers bear his worshipt Ark.

He feels from Juda's Land
The dredded Infants hand,
     The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside,
Longer dare abide,
     Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe to shew his Godhead true,
Can in his swadling bands controul the damned crew.

So when the Sun in bed,
Curtain'd with cloudy red,
     Pillows his chin upon and Orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th' infernall jail,
     Each fetter'd Ghost slips to his severall grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fayes
Fly after the Night-steeds, leaving their Moon-lov'd maze.

But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
     Time is our tedious Song should here have ending:
Heavn's youngest teemed Star
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
     Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending,
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.

Congratulations, reader!  You have just made it through a very long and challenging poem about Christ's birth.  The references to classical myth, antiquity, and pagan deities are many, and the spellings are somewhat odd to our modern eyes.  But you've made it!  I will not keep you long here, since despite the poem's length, I feel its overall message must be fairly clear:

Christ is born.  At his birth, all of these wondrous things have happened (all life has come into order, pagan gods have been banished and hold no power, mankind will be redeemed, light has won over darkness) and yet, he is but a Babe and must sleep,  Milton was only twenty one when he wrote this poem, and it's widely considered his first truly great poem.

I leave you as the poem does, with an image of a new star in the sky, keeping watch over her "sleeping Lord."  The manger is now the court of the Lord, and all around it, "Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable."  It's a beautiful image, a babe in swaddling clothes, a spot of light in a dark night sky, mankind's redemption and hope, surrounded by Angels, glorifying the music of the spheres and the natural order of the world.  Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

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