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2. Milton: The Infant Cry of God


Poziom:

Temat: Edukacja

Professor John Rogers: It's fitting that the first
poem of Milton's that we study in this class is "On the Morning
of Christ's Nativity." In a number of ways,
it's both a first poem and it's a poem about firsts.
It isn't exactly, though, the first poem that
Milton wrote. As you can see from your --
from actually any -- edition, any modern edition,
of Milton which arranges the poems more or less
chronologically -- you can tell that the young Milton had
actually written quite a few things before he wrote what we
call colloquially the Nativity Ode,
but most of these early pieces are written in the Latin
that Milton had perfected at school and these earliest of
Milton's Latin poems are lyrics. They're of an incredibly
impressive technical proficiency and they are absolutely soaked
with the references to the classical writers that Milton
had been ingesting from his earliest youth.
Milton had also written a couple of very short poems in
English. But there's an important and,
I think, a very real sense in which Milton wanted to make it
seem as if the Nativity Ode were the first poem that he
had written. There's also an important and,
I think, a very real sense in which Milton wanted to make it
seem -- and obviously this is a much more difficult feat --
wanted to make it seem as if the Nativity Ode were the
first poem that anyone had written.
Now Milton was born in 1608 and he wrote the Nativity Ode
along with the Sixth Elegy,
the Elegia Sexta, that we read for today in
December of 1629, a couple of weeks presumably
after he turned twenty-one. It wasn't until 1645 at the age
of thirty-six or thirty-seven that Milton would publish his
first volume of poems, which he titled simply
Poems. And it wouldn't be another
twenty-two years after that until Milton
actually published Paradise Lost.
Now I am mentioning these dates here because the dates on
which Milton wrote and published his poems,
the temporal sequence of these publications,
have a peculiar and particular importance for the poet.
As early as 1629 (that's the date we're in now) Milton is
thinking of himself as a poet who has not yet
published. He delays for an unusually long
time his poetic entrance into print, and he's musing almost
continually on what it means to be a poet who has delayed his
publication: to be a poet who's waiting for something,
to be a poet who's always looking to the future to the
poem that he hasn't yet written, to the future and to the
readers he hasn't yet attained, and maybe most gloriously,
a poet who's looking to the future to the fame that he has
not yet successfully secured or secured at all because no one at
this point knows John Milton.When in 1645 Milton
finally publishes that first volume of poetry,
the first poem that he places in this volume is the Nativity
Ode, our poem today. And under this title,
"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," appears -- as you can
see from your text -- appears the subtitle,
"composed 1629." Milton's taking pains here,
and he does this with very few other poems, to let us know
precisely when it is that he's written it.
"Composed 1629" -- whether or not that's actually true,
and there's some controversy about that -- but nonetheless,
the subtitle announces to all who know John Milton that the
poet was twenty-one years old at the moment of its composition
and that he had therefore just reached his majority.Now the
subject matter that he's chosen for this poem,
for this so-called first poem, couldn't possibly be more
appropriate. With this first poem treating
the subject of the nativity of Christ, Milton is able
implicitly to announce something like his own nativity as a poet.
It goes without saying that there is something outlandish,
to say the least, about this.
We're struck by the arrogance implicit in Milton's active
identification here. What could possibly be more
presumptuous than the association of the beginning of
one's own career, one's own literary career,
with the birth of the Christian messiah?
Milton's implicit connection between his own birth as a poet
and the birth of the Son of God is an act of hubris that I think
a lot of his contemporaries would feel more comfortable
actually calling blasphemy.John Milton will
remain unique in English letters for the degree of thought that
he gave to the shape of his literary career,
or actually to the notion of a career at all.
No English poet before Milton ever suggested that he had been
chosen by God at birth to be a poet.
None of England's pre-Miltonic poets -- Chaucer,
Spenser, Shakespeare --had dared to suggest -- and it would
never have occurred to them to suggest --that theirs was
actually a divine vocation.
I think it takes your breath away to think of the unspeakably
high hopes that John Milton had for his career.If you have a
chance, you might want to take a look
-- I think this is in the Cross Campus Library -- at the
facsimile version of the very first edition of Paradise
Lost. It's in ten books rather
than twelve. It's a modest thing,
the 1667 volume, and the text looks perfectly
ordinary until you realize that in the margin alongside the
lines of the poem are printed the line numbers for the poem.
just like the line numbers in any modern edition of Milton
that's been produced for the likes of you,
for the consumption of college English majors.
As far as I know -- I know of no exception,
although someone may well be able to produce one -- no
original poem in English had ever been published with line
numbers in the margin in its very first printing.
And it may well be that no poem has ever been since Paradise
Lost published with line numbers in its very first
edition. Any right-thinking printer or
any right-thinking publisher would scoff at the presumption
of a poet who demanded such a thing.
The only precedent Milton would have had even for the
idea of line numbers would have been the great
ancient classics, the magnificent Renaissance
editions of Homer and Virgil. They would have appeared in the
seventeenth century with line numbers because line numbers
obviously facilitate the production of scholarly
commentary and facilitate the study of those texts in the
classroom. And I can only assume that that
is precisely the point, that Milton would -- later in
1667 when Paradise Lost is published,
he would make his poem canonical just like The Iliad
and just like The Odyssey and The Aeneid
before anyone had actually read it.
Milton would insert into the printed text of his poem his own
anticipation that his epic would receive the same universal
approbation as Homer's and Virgil's.
It's a daring way to jump-start one's own literary
celebrity.Milton was continually in a state of
anticipation. And it's this rhetoric of
anticipation, this language of looking
forward, that structures all of Milton's own narratives about
his own literary career. And this is exquisitely visible
to us in the Nativity Ode. At a very early age,
Milton brooded on his poetic vocation as if it were an actual
calling from God. But the problem of one's being
called to be a great poet is that one may have an inkling or
some sense of a promise of future greatness but nothing
really to show for it yet. And he knew this.
He had obviously been a successful student at St.
Paul's School in London and then later in college at
Cambridge University. He had written a large handful
of college exercises and assignments in Latin,
and he had obviously made a favorable impression on his
teachers, one of whom, at least, he stayed in touch
with for years. Even when he was a young boy
Milton's Latin seems to have been impeccable,
and he was quickly establishing himself as one of the best
Latinists in the country. But Milton's calling --
this is what John Milton knew -- his calling was to be a famous
English poet, a famous English poet writing
in English: a calling that he holds despite the fact that he
appears to have written next to nothing in English verse.
All Milton has at the beginning of his poetic career is the
promise of greatness, the anticipation of a luminous
body of English poetry.Now in the first original poem that
Milton wrote in English, titled "At a Vacation
Exercise," Milton -- and you will come to recognize this as
so unbelievably Miltonic -- Milton doesn't write about love
or about death or about any of the subjects that typically
engage the youngest practitioners of poetry.
Milton's subject in his first English poem is -- we can guess
it: it's his future literary career.
You can look at page thirty-one in the Hughes edition.
So Milton begins by addressing not a fair mistress or a
blooming rose or -- he doesn't even begin by addressing God.
He addresses instead the English language:
"Hail native Language," Milton begins,
and then he proceeds to set out in his heroic couplets of iambic
pentameter a map for his future career as a famous poet.Now
when Milton publishes this poem, he makes it clear that it was
written at age nineteen. That's important to him.
Milton claims that he will one day use the English language to
express what he calls "some graver subject,"
some more important subject matter, and he proceeds to
characterize what that graver subject will look like.
I'm looking at line thirty-three here.
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav'n's door
Look in, and see each blissful Deity
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie…
Now the graver subject that Milton is intending at some
point to expound upon is clearly an epic one.
Like Homer and like Virgil, Milton intends to soar above
the wheeling poles of the visible world and describe the
otherwise invisible comings and goings of the gods.
And, of course, this is what he would go on to
do in Paradise Lost. The nineteen-year-old
Milton hasn't yet imagined that his own epic would take for its
subject a story from the Bible, but the poetic ambition is
clearly identifiable to us as epic in scope.We will hear
again of Milton's intention to write an epic in a versified
letter that he writes to his best friend,
Charles Diodati. This is the letter to Diodati
which Milton publishes as the Sixth Elegy. That's the
Latin poem that was assigned for today's class.
So take a look at page fifty-two in the Hughes.
Milton naturally wrote his friend letters in impeccable
Latin verse, and this one he seems to have composed almost
immediately after having written,
having completed, the Nativity Ode. The
letter to Diodati gives us another glimpse of the
anticipatory narrative that Milton is sketching for his
career. Milton claims that epic poetry
is the highest ambition for a poet and then he goes on to
explain how it is that the epic poet should comport himself.
I love this. So this is Milton to his best
friend:But he whose theme is wars and heaven under Jupiter in
his prime, and pious heroes and chieftains
half-divine… let him live sparingly like the
Samian teacher; and let herbs furnish his
innocent diet… and let him drink sober
draughts from the pure spring. Beyond this,
his youth must be innocent of crime and chaste,
his conduct irreproachable and his hands stainless.So
Milton is explaining to Charles Diodati that if you're going to
become an epic poet, you have to start acting like
one. You have to remain celibate
and, as we will see in the coming week, this is important
to Milton. You have to remain sober,
and you must eat vegetarian ("let herbs furnish his innocent
diet"). And then Milton goes on to
explain that this is exactly what Homer did.
This is how Homer prepared himself to be the greatest and
the first of all epic poets. It's not uninteresting,
I think, to note that there appears to be absolutely no
evidence whatsoever available to John Milton that Homer was
either vegetarian or a lifelong celibate.
By all accounts, Milton has just made this up in
his letter to Diodati. Clearly, this is something that
he wants to believe or that he needs to believe,
but there does seem to be evidence that at least at this
early point in Milton's life he's intending to remain
sexually abstinent forever. He would remain a virgin in
order to prepare for and to maintain this incredibly
important role as an epic poet. And, as I mentioned a moment
ago, we will return to this question of what has been
interestingly called the young Milton's "chastity
fetish."So Milton implies to Diodati that he isn't yet up to
the task of epic, but as he describes the
Nativity Ode that he's just written, it's almost as if he
considers it something of a mini-epic.
This is page 198 in the Hughes: "I am singing the starry sky
and the hosts that sang high in air,
and the gods that were suddenly destroyed in their own
shrines."Now we have the trappings here of epic grandeur
and epic subject matter. The poem on the morning of
Christ's nativity serves as Milton's preparation for
something greater than itself. It's a poem on which this very
young poet is cutting his teeth. The nativity of Christ,
as you can imagine, was a popular subject for early
seventeenth-century poets -- for pious early seventeenth-century
poets. Nearly all of the poets that we
come now to recognize as the major religious literary figures
of the period like John Donne, whom you may have read in
English 125, or Robert Herrick or Richard Crashaw -- all of
these poets had tried their hand at the poetic celebration of the
birth of Christ. And actually it's instructive.
You can learn a lot by comparing Milton's poem to those
of so many of his contemporaries.
His contemporaries are doing a kind of thing with their
representation of the birth of Christ that Milton seems
carefully to have avoided. And you can actually imagine
without even having read them what a lot of these poems are
like. Most poets who write nativity
poems are interested in the miracle of the virgin birth,
emphasizing the Virgin Mary and the tender mother-son
relationship between Mary and Jesus.Milton shows unusually
little interest in the miraculousness of the conception
or anything like the domestic details of the manger scene.
The focus of the Nativity Ode isn't even really on
the Incarnation -- that's the theological doctrine of
divinity's descent into humanity,
how God becomes a mortal. What Milton is primarily
interested in in his Nativity Ode is the
redemption, the promise of what Christ's
Nativity will do at some future point for mankind.
The birth of Jesus doesn't immediately effect the
redemption of fallen man but it's the moment -- and this is
why it's so important to Milton -- it's the moment at which that
promise is made. The Nativity for Milton is
purely an anticipatory event. It's less meaningful in itself
than it is for what it promises for the future,
because it's not going to be until after the Nativity that we
have the event of the Crucifixion,
and after that the event of the Resurrection,
and finally the terrible moment of the Last Judgment which will
bring the narrative of Christian history to its ultimate close.
So the satisfactions of the moment are for Milton deferred
here; and it's something like a
recognizable process of deferral and postponement that you will
see beginning to form themselves at the very center of Milton's
poetic imagination.Okay. Let's look at the poem on page
forty-three in the Hughes. As soon as Milton describes
for us the events in heaven that lead up to the Nativity,
he begins the -- this is the prelude of the poem,
it's broken up in to two chunks: the prelude and then
what Milton calls the hymn -- he begins the third stanza of the
prelude to his poem with a plea to the Heavenly Muse for
inspiration. This is line fifteen,
page forty-three in the Hughes. The poet is
asking for help with the composition of the poem.
Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome Him to this, his new abode…?
We're struck, I think -- or at least I'm
struck -- by what I find to be the oddly negative,
almost scolding tone that Milton is adopting,
really quite inappropriately, I think, in this address to the
muse. He seems less interested in
actually praying for divine assistance than he is in
chiding the muse for not having come to his aid
sooner.We might be able to understand some of the weird,
anxious energy behind this stanza if we think of the phrase
that Milton uses here: the phrase "Infant God."
As someone who would quickly establish himself as the most
talented Latinist probably in all of England,
Milton is naturally -- how could he not be?
-- highly attuned to the etymological prehistory of the
English word infant. Our word infancy comes
from the Latin word infans,
which literally means "not speaking."
Christ, whose Nativity Milton is honoring, is still just a
baby. He isn't speaking at this
moment yet. He isn't yet producing language.
And in his role here as a mute, as an infant,
Christ is serving, I think, an important function
for Milton. He serves as something like a
complicated double for the young, unpublished,
and as of yet unproductive poet himself.
Consider that even this early on in his career,
Milton is harboring epic ambitions, as we've seen.
He is very much an infant in 1629.
He isn't yet able or he hasn't yet produced epic speech.
And I think it's possible to see that one of the purposes of
this poem is precisely to correct that situation.
It's one of the purposes of this poem to allow Milton to
grow out of his infancy, to incarnate or to put actually
into words the talent that he believes himself to
possess.Now it's not until the fourth stanza of the prelude
that we can fully understand the magnitude of the strange
anxieties here. We can't know exactly -- and
this is one of the wonderfully unsettling things about this
stanza -- we can't know exactly to whom Milton is addressing
this stanza. It would appear that Milton has
stopped addressing the muse, the Heavenly Muse,
and that he has begun addressing himself -- although
that's unclear. But it may be the case that
it's something like a situation in which over the course of the
previous stanza, Milton has actually usurped the
role of the muse and has begun providing something like his own
inspiration. So in the fourth stanza we as
readers have no idea where we are or when it is the speaker of
the poem imagines himself to be speaking,
and it's at this point that something quite strange happens.
Milton tells the muse -- or is he telling himself?
we don't know -- Milton tells someone to hurry up --
think of this -- to hurry up with the inspiration of the ode,
to hurry up with the inspiration of the ode because
Milton can see the Three Wise Men bearing their gifts as they
dutifully follow the Star of Bethlehem to the manger.This
may seem to be a perfectly reasonable vision for a poet
considering himself to be an inspired poet to have,
but there's something peculiar here.
Milton wants to beat the Three Wise Men to the scene.
Milton wants to arrive in Bethlehem to hand Christ his
poem before the wise men are able to bring their gold and
their frankincense and their myrrh.
Look at line twenty-two. See how from far upon the
Eastern road The Star-led wizards haste with
odors sweet: O run, prevent them with
thy humble ode, And lay it lowly at His blessed
feet. Think of what this poem is now
asking of us. We're being asked to accept the
fiction that Milton is having this very poem laid at the
blessed feet of the infant Christ.
Milton, who is writing at the present moment of December of
1629, is claiming the capacity to arrive at a moment in history
that he has already described as a long-completed one.
Milton tells himself to run, and naturally he would have to
run fast indeed in order to arrive at a moment in time that
had already occurred before he even set out!
This weird temporal disjunction is an important part of the
poem, and it not only gives the poem its peculiar air of
something like a conceptual time-warp,
but it's an important part of Milton's profoundly anticipatory
imagination.So Milton is struggling here to catch up with
the star-led wizards, who -- as you can note -- are
already themselves hasting. And he tries to "prevent" them
with his humble ode. We'll talk about humble
in a minute, but I'm interested now in the word prevent,
which for me is really the central word of this remarkable
stanza. Now, I don't know if Merritt
Hughes weighs in on this or not. Most editors of Milton tell us
that the word prevent in this line retains its original
Latin meaning as you can see on your handout.
It means "to come before." The Latin is praevenire;
it means "to anticipate." Milton wants his ode to make it
to Bethlehem before the Three Wise Men do.
Now, this is a form of competitiveness with which we
are all familiar. This is the straightforward,
perfectly understandable competition to be first.Now,
it's Milton's annotators who tell us that the word
prevent means "to come before,
to anticipate," and on some level it obviously means that
and that goes without question. But I think this definition is
also limiting, and this is a phenomenon that I
hope you will come to be familiar with.
The good scholars of Milton reveal their typical resistance
to anything even remotely interesting or alive in the
text. Surely this word prevent
also has a little bit of its modern meaning.
I think it might actually be the more obvious meaning,
which is "to hinder" or "to preclude."
When Milton tells himself to "prevent" the "Star-led
wizards… with thy humble ode," he's also
saying that the wise men should be prevented from making it to
the manger at all, that somehow the wise men need
to be headed off at the pass and precluded from presenting any
gifts to the Infant God that may compete with the so-called
humble ode of John Milton.Now this is a darker
form of competitiveness, a competitiveness spawned --
think of our own environment here in the academy -- spawned
by courses that grade strictly on a curve: a type of
environment where one succeeds not merely by doing well but by
doing better than other people, and especially in addition by
preventing other people from doing well.
It's an extraordinarily dark way to characterize the
composition and the process of the poem.We have a strained
image of the composition of the poem at its very outset and we
have an image of someone writing as if he were participating in a
race. And we're reminded of the
etymological root of our modern English word career.
Milton will only use the word career once in his poetic
oeuvre and it comes -- it will come pretty soon,
actually, in Sonnet Number Seven.
The word career comes from the French
carrière, which means "a race course" and
etymologically "a career." What we think of as a career
isn't simply the benign product of the gradual development of a
certain potential. That's how we generally think
of a career. It's the outcome of a race --
one's running faster than all of the other guys –
and it's as if to have a career at all one has no choice but to
come in first.The desire to be first is really central to
this poem and it continues in this stanza:
Have thou the honor first thy Lord to greet
And join thy voice unto the Angel Choir,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire.
As you may have guessed, because you have this on your
handout, Milton is alluding here to the famous words of the Old
Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah in this passage is
describing a crucial moment in his career, his career as a
prophet: the moment in which his lips are cleansed and he is
empowered -- divinely empowered -- to speak
prophetically. These are the Old Testament
lines: Then flew one of the
seraphims unto me [Isaiah tells us], having a live coal in his
hand which he had taken with the
tongs from off the altar:
And he laid it upon my mouth, and said,
Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is
taken away, and thy sin purged.
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying,
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Then said I, Here am I; send me.
So what are we to do with this allusion?
What are we to make of Milton's use of this striking and painful
image of prophetic preparation? Milton can join his voice to
the angel choir and have the honor of being first to greet
the "Infant God." But before he can actually be
made present at the actual event of the Nativity,
he has to endure something painful and obviously momentous:
"from out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire."
The iniquity of his lips must be burned off by a live angelic
coal, that the sinfulness of his lips -- we could think of it as
the sinfulness of his voice, his poetic voice -- will
have to be purged. What exactly that purgation
will entail and why Milton's voice needs to be purged at all
-- I think these questions are really the subject of the entire
rest of the poem. The hymn, what Milton calls the
"humble ode," that follows this introduction is the poem that
Milton wants to present to the Lord.
But the hymn at the same time is something like the
process, the process by which Milton is
attempting to purge and cleanse his poetic voice and make it a
voice that will actually be equal to the extraordinary
ambition that he has for it.The hymn,
the large part of the poem, can be divided roughly into
three sections. First, in the first eight
stanzas you have Milton describing the scene of the
Nativity and the effect that the birth of this new infant has on
the natural world. I don't have time here to
discuss this section right now, but you've already had some
encounter with the incredibly impressive level of ingenuity
and grotesquery in this remarkable passage.
Nature, who is an effeminized, personified being,
is shamed and humiliated when she finds herself naked in the
presence of this new God, Jesus.The second section
runs from stanzas nine through seventeen, and it characterizes
the song that the heavenly choir sings at the moment of the
Nativity. But when Milton describes the
song of the angelic choir he can't -- it's amazing –
he can't seem to focus on the event at hand.
What we should, I think, be witnessing here is
the nativity of Christ and all of the events immediately
surrounding the actual birth of the Infant God;
but no sooner has Milton mentioned the singing of the
angelic choir at the Nativity than he reminds himself of all
the other times that they've sung.
It's something like liner notes or a performance history of the
cosmos' greatest singing group ever.Look at line 120.
Milton writes that this choir had been singing at the moment
of creation. Not bad.
While the Creator Great His constellations set,
And the well-balanc't world on hinges hung…
It's almost too much for this poet.
He's already been playing around with the temporality of
the poem. as we've seen,
establishing a fiction that works to place himself at the
scene of a nativity that obviously occurs 1600 years and
change before his own birth. But it's almost as if Milton
were tempted now to make himself go even further back,
to write a humble ode that he could place at the feet of the
Creator, the Creator at the moment of the actual creation of
the entire universe. The stakes of coming first seem
are getting higher and higher.Before long the
speaker realizes that this fantasy (and it is a fantasy
that he's been engaged in) is starting to sound a little
extreme or maybe a little dangerous.
In line 134, Milton indicates that this holy
song has enwrapped his fancy, that it has in some perilous
way absorbed his imagination: 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 mold, And hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
The holy song Milton has been describing is beginning to look
almost too tempting even to contemplate.
There's almost a danger here in listening to it too long or
describing it in too much detail and the danger seems -- or what
Milton thinks of as the peril seems to involve the problem of
time. "For if such holy Song / enwrap
our fancy long," then we'll mistakenly convince ourselves
that time could actually run backwards and that we've been
returned to the Golden Age, the very first age of human
history according to classical legend.We,
of course, know as we read the prelude to
this poem that this is a work consumed with questions of
temporal disjunction, with that problem of temporal
discontinuity. Milton clearly wants us to know
that this Nativity Ode was written by a young
Londoner in 1629, but it's a poem that is at the
same time deliverable to the infant Christ by some
extraordinary violation, of course, of all of the
established laws of temporal sequence.
And when you reread this poem and you look at it in your
discussion section, you may want to think about the
tenses -- it sounds tedious but I am convinced that it's not
tedious -- the tenses of the verbs that Milton's using.
Milton is switching here from present to past to future
incredibly rapidly and really with a bewildering kind of
facility And it is at some point impossible,
I think, for the reader to tell whether the poet is discussing
something that's happening now,
something that's happened a long time ago,
or something that will happen at the end of time.
The thematic problems that Milton is attempting to tackle
are written into the very grammar and the syntax of the
poem.Now, Milton understands the problems
besetting what we could think of as the poem's confused
temporality; he understands this a lot
better than we do. And there's a
self-consciousness about the temporal strangeness of this
poem that leads, I think, to its crisis moment.
Look at stanza sixteen. This is the stanza that begins
with line 150. Milton has just been
entertaining the glorious moment of the apocalypse at the end of
time -- because he's always looking further and further and
further ahead. He's been doing that when we
get this. Line 150:
But wisest Fate says 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 glorify…
"But wisest Fate says no, / this must not yet be so."
It's here that we have something like a crystallizing
moment of reality-testing. Milton, he checks himself.
Reality intrudes and the poet has no choice but to say,
"No. You've gone too far.
You've gone too far in your anticipation of the future event
at the end of time. Fate will permit no apocalypse
before its time, before the necessary and
painful steps that have to lead up to the Last Judgment.
Before the ecstatic fulfillment of all of Christian history,
the great Christian narrative -- Jesus actually,
of course, has to grow up and lead his life and then sacrifice
that life on the bitter cross."In alluding to the
prophet Isaiah in the prelude, Milton suggested that the
iniquity of his lips had to be purged off -- burned off,
with the live coal supplied by one of the seraphim.
One of those sins, I think, that needs to be
purged is clearly the sin of eagerness or over-anticipation,
the drive to move ahead of oneself and the drive to get
ahead of others (as we saw Milton trying to do with the
Three Wise Men). These are drives that the poem
seems to be struggling to keep in check, or that Milton is
representing the poem as struggling to keep in check,
or to purge in some way.But there's something else that
needs to be purged, and the poem recognizes that
even more profoundly. The Nativity Ode is
continually presenting the speaker with temptations,
with incitements to sin that need to be purged from the
speaker's poetic voice. The final section of the poem
presents us with the most powerful temptation that John
Milton can confront, and we will find that this is a
problem that continues for the rest of his writing life.
He will have to do battle with this temptation forever:
the temptation offered by classical literature.
You remember that Milton had vowed to his friend Charles
Diodati in the Sixth Elegy that he would become an epic
poet some day, and that he was taking all of
the necessary steps to transform himself into an epic poet.
But it's strictly a Christian epic poem that Milton
seems to imagine himself as writing.
Now, he hasn't yet settled on the topic of the Fall,
the fall of Adam and Eve from their place of bliss in the
Garden of Eden. But Milton knows that the
general feeling of the thing is, of course, going to be
Christian, and he's probably taking as his
model at this point the Italian poet Torquato Tasso who wrote
Jerusalem Delivered, a slightly earlier
Christian epic poem, romance-epic poem,
that Milton greatly admired. But Milton's also sensitive to
the fact that the very phrase "Christian epic" is in some way
a contradiction in terms. The epic form is a classical,
pagan form. It's a poem structured around
the interaction between human beings and an entire pantheon of
pagan deities. To write any kind of epic at
all might very well seem to be embracing an inappropriately
sensual paganism at the expense of the higher discipline of
good, old-fashioned monotheistic
Christianity. And the ode,
too -- the form in which this poem is written -- is a pagan
form invented by the Greek poet Pindar to express the
sublimities of emotion arising from a contemplation of the
actions of the gods.Now, in writing in these genres,
Milton is, of course, confronted with a dilemma.
He's a humanist scholar. He is more steeped in the
sensuous beauty of classical literature, the classical
tradition, than probably anyone else of his generation.
Since he was an unusually small lad, he had been mainlining
Greek and Roman poetry. The language of Homer and of
Virgil and of Pindar and of Ovid had become an inextricable part
of his literary imagination and of his consciousness in general.
But Milton was also beginning to develop in this period a much
more strict, a much more disciplined religious
temperament. He was beginning to join ranks
with those early seventeenth-century English
Protestants who imposed upon themselves rigorous and strict
codes of behavior and self-denial,
and who were increasingly being called by their enemies
Puritans. And it's possible that the very
idea of a Puritan poet presented Milton with what may have felt
like an insoluble conflict. It's possible that Milton would
continue -- well, if Milton were to continue this
cultivation of a poetic career, he would clearly have to purge
(this is the Miltonic logic at this stage) he would have to
purge his poetic voice of the sin and the taint of pagan
iniquity. If he was going to become a
specifically Christian poet, he would have to expel from his
system the sensual world of classical learning that for him
was at the very core of his being.And it's precisely a
silencing of classical literature that Milton is
attempting to effect here. With the scene of the flight of
the pagan gods at the nativity of Christ Milton is also
depicting a scenario that, I think, on some level he's
hoping will occur within himself.
We have the silencing not just of any literature here but of
pagan literature. It's now the pagan deities who
have turned into "infant" gods. Milton is narrating or
representing the process by which they are silenced.
They're rendered speechless or dumb, and the poem effects this
process in order to give someone else an opportunity to speak.
Milton calls upon a whole range of violent, exciting,
militaristic images, and set-pieces to describe the
triumph of Christ over the petty gods of paganism,
but this routing of the gods brings with it a certain cost.
Something is lost here as well. Look at line 181.
Hands down, these are, for me, the best lines in the
poem: The lonely mountains o'er,
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 flow'r-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
It's here in this stanza, filled with the resounding
voices of weeping and lament, that we realize that something
more is going on than merely a routing of the pagan gods,
something more even than Milton's pious triumph over his
classical literary imagination. Suddenly, the literary genre
that Milton is writing in is no longer this triumphant classical
ode. You have an elegy here,
a beautiful and plangent lament for something or someone lost.
And we have to ask ourselves, "Could this be a paradise
lost?" We hear a clear mourning for
those pagan beings who are forced to depart because of the
violent onset of Christianity. When Milton writes that "the
parting Genius is with sighing sent," he means the genius
loci or the local spirit of the place,
the natural spirit of a place: those beneficent beings that
pagans had believed inhabited certain woods and streams.
But the parting genius is also a part of Milton's own genius,
his literary genius, that aspect of his literary
career and his literary expertise that has been
nourished and fed, lovingly fed,
by classical literature. The conflictedness that
Milton is encapsulating here is probably most intense in the
last lines of this wonderful stanza: "With flow'r-inwov'n
tresses torn / the Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled
thickets mourn." This densely tangled thicket of
clustered consonants in this amazing couplet is a signal to
us of the weight, of the import,
of this terrible event. These are difficult lines
physically to read, and they may very well be the
most painful lines in the entire poem from an emotional
perspective. It's one thing for the evil
pagan deities like Moloch and Peor to be forced in to hell by
the newly born Christ. Who are they to us?
We find it difficult to bewail their absence.
But the nymphs in all of their sensuous beauty,
with "flow'r-inwov'n tresses," they have to experience the same
fate. I think it's impossible not to
wince when we imagine the painful tearing of the nymphs'
tresses. Their hair gets caught on the
tangled thickets of the forest as they abandon -- as they are
forced to abandon -- the classical corners of Milton's
literary imagination.The elegiac tone of this final
section of the poem should give us some clues to the type of
victory over paganism that Christ's birth is actually
heralding here. How new will this new world
order actually be? We may imagine that henceforth,
now that he has written his Nativity Ode,
Milton has fully expunged from his literary system that
youthful attachment to the pagan classics.
But the expulsion of paganism described in the Nativity Ode is
a scene that Milton will return to and return to again and
again, and in many ways it will be
Christianity's triumph over paganism and all of the pain
that that triumph produces that will become the hidden subtext
of many of Milton's greatest works.
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