An introduction to the first of John Milton’s poems that can be considered to exhibit greatness.
Written shortly after the poet’s 21st birthday in 1629, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity is widely recognised as the first great work produced by John Milton. Although he had flirted with Ovidian sensuality and the kind of light verse that is produced by wine and conviviality, this poem acts as a manifesto for Milton’s career as a poet of almost heroic seriousness and virtue.
The poem is composed in two sections. The first part lays out the argument, that is, the theme and purpose of the poem. This section consists of four seven line stanzas written in standard iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc (which was also used in the elegy On the Death of a Fair Child). It begins in straightforward fashion: “This is the month, and this the happy morn/ Wherein the Son of Heaven’s eternal King/ Of wedded Maid, and married Virgin Mother born,/ Our great redemption from above did bring.” Subsequent stanzas describe Christ’s choice in descending from heaven to ‘mortal clay’ and the various elements of the Nativity story: the choir of angels, the three wise men and their gifts and so forth.
The next and longer part of the poem is entitled The Hymn and consists of 27 stanzas of somewhat unusual structure: the initial couplet is iambic trimeter (i.e. three soft and hard bests alternately) followed by a line of iambic pentameter. Two more three-beat lines follow and then another in iambic pentameter. The stanza then concludes with a line of iambic tetrameter and one of hexameter (that is, four and then six beats). The rhyme scheme for these verses is aabccbdd. As a Hymn, it is at least partly intended to be sung as much as read.
This section details the end of the pagan era, which the coming of Christ has wrought: the difference between the pagan (i.e. pre-Christian era) and the Christian era is that, in the former, history and events repeat themselves endlessly, like the seasons of the year. On the other hand, the onset of the Christian era represents a definitive, qualitative change from one kind of universe into another. Milton deploys the gods and myths of the past as emblematic of the change this has made: “And sullen Moloch fled,/ Hath left in shadows dread,/ His burning idol all of blackest hue.” Elsewhere, the Egyptian gods are also invoked: “Nor is Osiris seen,/ In Memphian grove, or green,/ Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud:/ Nor can he be at rest,/ Within his sacred chest,/ Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud.”
The greatness of this poem can be seen as the union of increasingly sure-footed construction of lines and verses, together with a breadth of knowledge and understanding brought into line with a powerful, overarching philosophy.