On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

Original Text: 
John Milton, Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Thomas Dring, 1673). Facs. edn. Complete Poetical Works reproduced in photographic facsimile. Comp. by H. F. Fletcher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1943-48. PR 3551 F52 Robarts Library.
1This is the month, and this the happy morn,
2    Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
3Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
4    Our great redemption from above did bring;
7        And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
8That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
9    And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
10Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
12    He laid aside, and here with us to be,
13        Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
14        And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
16    Afford a present to the Infant God?
17Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
18    To welcome him to this his new abode,
20        Hath took no print of the approaching light,
22See how from far upon the eastern road
25    And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
26    Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
27        And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
The Hymn
29It was the winter wild,
30While the Heav'n-born child,
31      All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
32Nature in awe to him
33Had doff'd her gaudy trim,
34      With her great Master so to sympathize:
35It was no season then for her
36To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.
37Only with speeches fair
38She woos the gentle air
40And on her naked shame,
41Pollute with sinful blame,
43Confounded, that her Maker's eyes
45But he, her fears to cease,
46Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace:
50      With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
51And waving wide her myrtle wand,
52She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
54Was heard the world around;
55      The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
57Unstain'd with hostile blood;
58      The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
60As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
61But peaceful was the night
62Wherein the Prince of Light
63      His reign of peace upon the earth began:
65Smoothly the waters kist,
66      Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
67Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
69The Stars with deep amaze
70Stand fix'd in steadfast gaze,
72And will not take their flight,
73For all the morning light,
76Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.
77And though the shady gloom
78Had given day her room,
79      The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
80And hid his head for shame,
81As his inferior flame
82      The new-enlighten'd world no more should need:
83He saw a greater Sun appear
88Full little thought they than
90      Was kindly come to live with them below:
93When such music sweet
94Their hearts and ears did greet,
95      As never was by mortal finger strook,
96Divinely warbled voice
99The air such pleasure loth to lose,
101Nature, that heard such sound
103      Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
104Now was almost won
105To think her part was done,
107She knew such harmony alone
108Could hold all heav'n and earth in happier union.
109At last surrounds their sight
110A globe of circular light,
111      That with long beams the shame-fac'd Night array'd;
113And sworded Seraphim
115Harping in loud and solemn quire,
117Such music (as 'tis said)
118Before was never made,
120While the Creator great
121His constellations set,
122      And the well-balanc'd world on hinges hung,
123And cast the dark foundations deep,
124And bid the welt'ring waves their oozy channel keep.
126Once bless our human ears
127      (If ye have power to touch our senses so)
128And let your silver chime
129Move in melodious time,
130      And let the bass of Heav'n's deep organ blow;
131And with your ninefold harmony
133For if such holy song
134Enwrap our fancy long,
136And speckl'd Vanity
137Will sicken soon and die,
138      And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
139And Hell itself will pass away,
140And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.
142Will down return to men,
143      Orb'd in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
144Mercy will sit between,
145Thron'd in celestial sheen,
147And Heav'n, as at some festival,
148Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
150This must not yet be so;
151      The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
152That on the bitter cross
153Must redeem our loss,
156The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,
158As on Mount Sinai rang
159      While the red fire and smould'ring clouds outbrake:
160The aged Earth, aghast
161With terror of that blast,
162      Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
163When at the world's last session,
165And then at last our bliss
166Full and perfect is,
167      But now begins; for from this happy day
169In straiter limits bound,
170      Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
171And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
172Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
174No voice or hideous hum
175      Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
176Apollo from his shrine
177Can no more divine,
178      With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
179No nightly trance or breathed spell
180Inspires the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetic cell.
182And the resounding shore,
183      A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
184From haunted spring, and dale
185Edg'd with poplar pale,
187With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn
188The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
189In consecrated earth,
190And on the holy hearth,
192In urns and altars round,
193A drear and dying sound
198Forsake their temples dim,
200And mooned Ashtaroth,
202      Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
206Hath left in shadows dread
207      His burning idol all of blackest hue:
208In vain with cymbals' ring
209They call the grisly king,
210      In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
212Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
214In Memphian grove or green,
215      Trampling the unshower'd grass with lowings loud;
216Nor can he be at rest
217Within his sacred chest,
221He feels from Juda's land
222The dreaded Infant's hand,
223      The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
224Nor all the gods beside
225Longer dare abide,
228Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.
229So when the Sun in bed,
230Curtain'd with cloudy red,
231      Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
232The flocking shadows pale
233Troop to th'infernal jail,
234      Each fetter'd ghost slips to his several grave,
235And the yellow-skirted fays
236Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-lov'd maze.
237But see, the Virgin blest
238Hath laid her Babe to rest:
239      Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
241Hath fix'd her polish'd car,
242      Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
243And all about the courtly stable,


5] holy Sages: the Hebrew prophets. Back to Line
6] deadly forfeit: the penalty of death incurred by man through the Fall. Back to Line
11] the midst of Trinal Unity: i.e., as the Second Person of the Trinity, three Persons and one God. Back to Line
15] Heavenly Muse. See Paradise Lost, I, 6 and note. Back to Line
19] The sky before the chariot of the sun has commenced to move across it; cf. below line 84 and note. Back to Line
21] spangled host: the stars. Back to Line
23] wizards: the "wise men from the east'' (Matthew 1:2). Back to Line
24] prevent: anticipate, come before. Back to Line
28] In Isaiah 6:6-7, a seraph takes a burning coal from the altar and touches the lips of the prophet. Milton adopts this as a symbol of his own dedication and inspiration, remembering that the seraphim symbolized love of God. Back to Line
39] front: face. Back to Line
42] confounded: put to shame. Back to Line
44] cease: put a stop to. Back to Line
47] The olive branch or wreath and the dove ("turtle" here stands for turtle dove) are symbols of peace, and the turtle dove and myrtle are symbols of love. In Ben Jonson's Entertainments at the Coronation of James 1, Peace is thus described: "... her attire white, semined with stars: a wreath of olive on her head, on her shoulder a silver dove. In her left hand she held forth an olive branch." Back to Line
48] The concentric spheres of the Ptolemaic universe. See below, line 125. Back to Line
49] harbinger: forerunner. Back to Line
53] Christian tradition associated what was known as the peace of Augustus with the birth of Christ. Back to Line
56] hooked chariot: war chariot armed with protruding hooks or blades. Back to Line
59] awful eye: eyes expressing awe. Back to Line
64] whist: hushed. Back to Line
68] Tradition described the halcyons as hatching out their offspring on the sea, temporarily calm, in late December: hence Milton's birds of calm, and the common phrase "halcyon days." Back to Line
71] An astrological image: power emanating from the stars was held to influence life on earth: their influence (here wholly beneficent) is now all directed towards the child Christ at Bethlehem. Back to Line
74] Lucifer: the morning star, last to set, and hence thought of as the shepherd or guardian of the rest. Back to Line
75] orbs: see below line 125 and note. Back to Line
84] Ovid, recounting the legend of Phaeton, tells how the Sun quits his palace with its jewelled throne, and, when Lucifer has marshalled the departing stars, ascends his chariot and drives across the sky. Back to Line
85] The shepherds, to whom the angel appeared (Luke 2:8);
lawn: grass-land. Back to Line
86] Or ere: before. Back to Line
87] Than: then. Back to Line
89] In classic myth Pan is the god and protector of shepherds and flocks. Not without precedent, Milton here associates Pan with Christ, the Good Shepherd (see Spenser, Shepheardes Calender, "Maye," Glosse). Back to Line
91] loves or ... sheep. The shepherds of pastoral poetry cared for their sheep and sang of their loves. Back to Line
92] silly: simple, rustic; like simple, silly also connoted harmless, innocent. Back to Line
97] noise: music--here of stringed instruments. Back to Line
98] took: captivated, cast a spell upon. Back to Line
100] close: conclusion of a musical phrase, cadence. Back to Line
102] the hollow round of Cynthia's seat: the sphere which contains the moon, whose goddess was Diana, called Cynthia because born on Mount Cynthus in Delos. See below, lines 125-32 and note. Back to Line
106] The music made by the turning spheres (see below, lines 125-32 and note) was thought to be or to symbolize the power that preserved the natural world in harmonious order: the higher music of the angel choir, if it continued thus to penetrate the world of nature, would perform this function yet more perfectly and render Nature's music superfluous. Back to Line
112] Seraphim and Cherubim: the first two orders in the hierarchy of angels. Back to Line
114] display'd: extended (a term used in heraldry). Back to Line
116] unexpressive: inexpressible (in any otherway), indescribable. Back to Line
119] Cf. Job 38:4-11. Back to Line
125] In the geo-centric scheme of the universe adopted by Ptolemy, the earth was surrounded by a series of concentric and transparent (cf. crystal) spheres containing moon, sun, each of the five planets then known, all the fixed stars, and the crystalline sphere, numbering nine (cf. ninefold) with the outer sphere or primum mobile, so called because it communicated motion to the whole. This was the system slowly displaced by the helio-centric scheme of Copernicus, supported and elaborated by the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. To the older scheme belonged the idea, met in Plato, that the spheres, as they turned, produced music and together made up a perfect harmony (cf. ninefold harmony), and this harmony was, or symbolized, the force which kept the universe in its order. The music was, of course, inaudible to mankind (hence the request at lines 126-27). By Christian commentators the number of the spheres was held to correspond to the nine orders in the hierarchy of angels, and from this correspondence Milton develops or adopts the idea that the music of the spheres (the image ofperfect order and harmony on the natural level) might sound in unison with the song of the angel choir (the image of perfect order and harmony on the supernatural level): hence, make up a full consort to the angelic voices. Back to Line
132] consort: synonymous with harmony and symphony. Back to Line
135] According to the cyclic view of history entertained by the ancient Greeks, the earliest age was one of innocence and happiness, which they called the Golden Age; it was succeeded by others growing progressively worse, till the cycle was completed and the Golden Age returned. Back to Line
141] Justice. The goddess of Justice, Astraea, was said to have left the world at the end of the Golden Age. Virgil prophesies her return and a new Age of Gold (Eclogues, IV, 4-9). Back to Line
146] tissu'd: woven of silk and silver threads. Back to Line
149] wisest Fate is identified by Milton with the will of God: "what I will is Fate" (P.L. VII, 173). Back to Line
154] Cf. John 17:4-5, 22. Back to Line
155] Cf. Thessalonians 4:15-16. Back to Line
157] Cf. Exodus 19:15-20. Back to Line
164] : "they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30). Back to Line
168] Based on two passages in Revelation: "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil .... and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit ... that he should deceive the nations no more ..." (20:2-3 ); "And his [the "great red dragon's"] tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth" (12:4). Back to Line
173] Christian commentators seized on the assertion of Plutarch that the pagan oracles (of which the most famous was that of Apollo at Delphi) fell silent, and associated the fact with the coming of Christ. Lat. cella designated the shrine. Back to Line
181] Plutarch also recounts how, about this time, the pilot of a ship announced that great Pan was dead and the news was greeted with loud wailing and lamentation from the nearby shore. Back to Line
186] Genius. See Lycidas, line 183 note. Back to Line
191] Lars: Roman household gods;
Lemures: Spirits of the departed. Back to Line
194] Flamens: Roman priests;
quaint: elaborate. Back to Line
195] marble seems to sweat. Cf. "The marble pillers and images.../Swet all for sorowe" (Alexander Barclay, Eclogue 3). Back to Line
196] peculiar: particular. Back to Line
197] Milton covers much of this ground again and in greater detail in P.L. I, 392-489; and see notes thereon.
Peor was one of the manifestations of Baal, the Phoenician sun god. Baalim is the plural of Baal and hence includes his local manifestations. Back to Line
199] twice-batter'd god: Dagon. See I Sam. 5:1-4; P.L., I, 457-66. Back to Line
201] Ashtaroth: Astarte, the Phoenician moon-goddess. Back to Line
203] Libyc Hammon: an Egyptian god, with the head of a ram, worshipped in the Libyan desert and later identified with Zeus. Back to Line
204] Thammuz: a Phoenician god, corresponding to Adonis, whose death symbolized the passing of summer. See Ezekiel 8:14 and P.L. I, 446-57. Back to Line
205] Moloch: worshipped by the Ammonites, who sacrificed their children to him: I Kings 11:7; II Kings 23:10. Back to Line
211] brutish gods of Nile. The gods of ancient Egypt were associated with animals: Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, and goddess of the moon, was represented with a cow's homs; Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was represented with a hawk's head; Anubis, a son of Osiris, was brought up by Isis whose faithful guard he became; he was represented with the head of a jackal, which the Greeks mistook for that of a dog. Back to Line
213] Osiris, the sungod of the Egyptians, was slain by his brother Set, identified by the Greeks with Typhon; his scattered remains were collected by Isis and placed in a series of sacred chests, deposited in temples in various cities: the worshipped ark is evidently one of these chests. Osiris was worshipped under the form of a bull Apis, at Memphis. Back to Line
218] shroud: refuge or retreat. Back to Line
219] timbrel'd: accompanied on the timbrel, a kind of tambourine. Back to Line
220] sable-stoled sorcerers: priests (who were also magicians) wearing black robes. Back to Line
226] Typhon was at once a serpent monster of Greek myth and by the Greeks identified with Set (see above, lines 213-17 note). Back to Line
227] an allusion to the infant Hercules, slaying of the serpents which attacked him in his cradle. Back to Line
240] youngest-teemed star: latest born star, the star of Bethlehem. Back to Line
244] bright-harness'd: clad in bright armour. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Hugh MacCallum; A. S. P. Woodhouse
RPO Edition: 
3RP 1.225-31.