ENGL 220: Milton
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 2 - The Infant Cry of God
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Nativity Ode [00:00:00]
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.
Chapter 2. Milton on Poetry as a Divine Vocation [00:05:10]
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 [a Yale 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.
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 [imagine receiving a letter like this!] theme is wars and heaven under Jupiter in his prime, and pious heroes and chieftains half-divine [I’ll skip a little bit]… 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 [the youth of the future epic poet] 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.
Chapter 3. The Poetic Celebration of the Birth of Christ [00:16:02]
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.
Chapter 4. Nativity Ode: The Prelude [00:18:43]
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Chapter 5. Nativity Ode: The Hymn [00:30:59]
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.
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:
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.” 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:
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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