To the modern reader, it might be hard to shake the feeling that Milton is just another stuffy old writer. It’s easy to write him off as just another one of those old Brits that your English teacher made you read – important and foundational and all, but dull, a bit tedious. His most famous association, after all, is that he wrote a really long poem about the Bible. He might seem merely as pious and devout as they come, offering little more than an affirmation of old-school Christianity. But what, then, are we to make of the fact the Milton was a vocal proponent of the English Revolution, that he was one of? How is the modern reader supposed to reconcile Milton’s reversion to the Bible with his desire for political liberation? And is it possible that someone who seemed to be writing about the Bible may have been talking about politics all along? It might turn out that Milton might be m0re radical than his poetry, at least on the surface, seems to appear.
The question before us, then, is the extent to which Milton’s religious poetry can be read as a poetics of political revolution. But that will be only the first task at hand; we’ll also want to figure out how this changes the way we read Milton, how we see him as a literary figure. Milton’s Nativity Ode offers a place to start. Written around Christmastime of 1629, though not published until 1645, the poem is a description of the nativity story in the style of a hymn. The poem might seem, at first glance, a relatively simple accomplishment, being neither the grandest of Milton’s works nor the most dramatic. But the poem’s structure and language, upon closer reading, present a number of interpretive challenges and surprising insights into Milton’s literary world.
The place to start, of course, is the beginning, which establishes the setting of the nativity.
This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
The first thing to note is that in establishing the nativity setting, the poem sets out to tell the story of the nativity story from the Old Testament, in which the prophets spoke of a “Son of God” descending “from above” to live among men. The poem continues in this vain, later stating “it was the winter wilde, while the head’n-born child, all meanly wrapt in rude manger lies.” Much like Paradise Lost, which is a retelling of the Genesis story, this poem is, at its core, a retelling of the Nativity. This forces us to stop and ask an imperative question: why does Milton think we need a re-telling of the nativity story? The simple fact that Milton is repeating a story already told places the poem in competition with the Old Testament. After all, if all Milton wanted people to do was read the Nativity story, pay attention to the prophets of the Old Testament, and praise the birth of Christ, he could have just told us to read the Bible. In retelling a biblical story, then, this poem at once aligns itself and is in competition with the Bible itself.
But beyond its relationship with the Bible, the poem is, curiously, also in linked to early Latin poetry. As many scholars have noted, the so-called “prophetic strain” of this poem is strikingly similar to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, “The Golden Age.” The most important thing to note about Virgil is that the Fourth Eclogue is generally seen as the great classical descriptions of the regeneration of the world. In this sense, the comparisons between these poems are clear: both depict the transformation of the world by a divine baby and the arrival on Earth of a virgin goddess; “he shall receive the life of gods, and himself be seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace,” writes Virgil. Curiously, however, Milton’s poem makes a point of rejecting the figures of the pagan tradition; “The Oracles are dumm,” he writes, adding that “Apollo from his shrine can no more divine, with hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.” The denunciation of the pagan world leads to the central conflict in the comparison of Milton and Virgil: Milton does not just adapt the form of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, but the act of adaptation actually functions as a corrective process. The pagan prophecy is converted into an affirmation of Christianity that manages to denounce Virgil in the process; as J. Martin Evans writes, Virgil’s classical framework is “adjusted and modified to meet the demands of a new ideology.” The comparison of the Nativity Ode with its predecessors, both Virgil and the Old Testament, places Milton is a sort of biblical-pagan matrix. The poem is at once aligned with the works of old while standing in competition with them, offering a curious retelling of the Bible and a Christian replacement of Virgil.
It is becoming clear, then, that the Nativity Ode in interested in more than just ordinary praise of the baby Jesus; the poem imagines nothing less than the total transformation of the world. As already mentioned, the poem does away with the authority of the Pagan gods, banishing the “brutish gods of Nile” and stating “Nor is Osiris seen in Memphian Grove;” as Milton writes, “each particular power forgoes his wonted seat.” But then the poem goes even further than more than the removal from power of these pagan figures; it imagines a cosmic transformation of nature upon the birth of the baby. Consider the following passage:
It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav’n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff’t her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize
As we can already see, Milton imagines nature as secondary to the newborn baby. Nature is “in aw” to him; he is its “Master.” But Milton goes even further later on, imagining nature cowering in the presence of the baby:
And through the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
And his inferiour flame,
The new-enlightn’d world no more should need;
He saw a greater Sun appear
Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.
We see here that the Sun becomes weakened with the birth of the baby; the sun “hid his head for shame,” and the world no longer needs his “inferior flame” now that a “greater Sun” has appeared. The poem replaces the sun with the baby, the “Prince of light,” whose “raign of peace upon the earth began.” In this way, the poem imagines the birth of Christ as the beginning of a revolution, a supernatural reordering of the natural world.
But then the important thing to note is that the poem imagines this revolution in an apocalyptic fashion; it portrays this new world order as the result of the Earth’s progression towards its limit, when “truth and justice with return down to men” and heaven “will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.” Indeed, the entire poem marches steadily towards the world’s final destination, towards the cataclysmic moment when:
With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang
While the red fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:
The aged Earth aghast
With terror of that blast
Shall from the surface to the center shake
When at the world’s last session
The dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.
This is, as the poem says, “the world’s last session.” And in the poem, this transformation gives way to the creation of a heaven on Earth – a world in which “at last our bliss full and perfect is.” This is the world that Milton described earlier – the world of the banished pagan gods and the abolition of Hell. It should be noted, then, that the apocalypse is the end of the world as we know it, but not the end of the world itself. This is the apocalypse, rather, of the radical millenarians, wherein the end of the world gives way to the reign of saints on Earth and God comes down to live among men – this is, to the radical millenarians the second coming of Jesus Christ.
We can see, then, that the poem is interested in the rejection of the past by way of a Puritan vision of the apocalyptic second coming of Jesus Christ. But then it’s even more than that – in describing the transformation of the world as the result of the second coming, Milton actually turns the reader into the poem’s subjects of conversion. For one thing, we have to note that the poem never refers directly to the author alone. As J. Martin Evans has explains, this distinguishes the poem from the work of Milton’s contemporaries, for often wrote of personal transformations of both the author and the subjects within their poem. Milton’s poem, on the other hand, is entirely anonymous, never once acknowledging any personal transformation on the part of the author; the poem does not even contain a single “I” or “me.” Nor is does the poem demonstrate the personal transformations of any of its characters – even the Shepherds are unmoved, merely “simply chatting in a rustick row” and keeping themselves busy with their “silly thoughts.” Indeed, there is no subjective presence in Milton’s poem that actually undergoes any spiritual transformation. Rather, it allows the reader to bear witness to the transformation of the world before subtly inviting the reader to take part in the poem’s vision of the new society. After all, the poem claims that the newborn babe will “redeem our loss so both himself and us to glorify” and will usher in an era of “our bliss;” By the use of the word “our,” the poem invites the reader into its temporal world such that it turns the reader into its subject of conversion; it invites the reader to become aware of the consequences of the new birth and take part in the poem’s post-apocalyptic vision. Indeed, the poem takes on a clear agenda: the conversion of its reader-subjects to its distinctive religious ideology through its imagined transformation of civilization.
We’ve figured out, then, that the poem has a distinctive goal: it aims to recruit its readers to its cause of creating a new world order in line with the thinking of radical millenarians. Unmistakably, this is directly related to the politics of revolutionary England in the seventeenth century – and, as we said earlier, Milton was one of its most vocal proponents. In his 1641 pamphlet Of Reformation, Milton stated his belief that the second coming was imminent, that Christ would “judge the several kingdoms of the world” and “put an end to all earthly tyrannies.” Furthermore, in The Reason of Church Government, Milton advocates the creation of a church-governed state; “since Church-government is so strictly commanded in Gods Word,” he writes, “the first and greatest reason why we should submit thereto, is because God hath so commanded.” Indeed, Milton’s stance was that the reign of the King is a threat to the rule of God on Earth, a conviction which comes to light most prominently in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which Milton identifies King Charles I as the Antichrist, defends the right of the people to revolt against the tyranny of their monarchs, and openly advocates the execution of the King.
It would seem, then, that to Milton, religion and politics are inextricably linked. But the question before us is whether Milton’s political beliefs are manifest in the Nativity Ode, which, at least on the surface, is fairly devoid of political language. All we need to do, however, is draw parallels between Milton’s political writings and the language of the poem to see that the poem has a distinctive political ideology. At the very beginning, for example, Milton refers to the baby as the “Son of Heavn’s eternal King” – and if the baby is Jesus, then the King of Heaven must be God, his father. Of course, this places God in competition with the monarchs. Milton makes this much clear later on when he writes that “The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng, and Kings sate still with awfull eye” upon the arrival of the baby; the kings are paralyzed in his presence. This correlates to the earlier analogy of the replacement of the Sun and the reordering of the Earth. As we already determined, the birth of the baby weakens the power of the Sun; it “hid his head in shame, as his inferiour flame the new-englightn’d world no more should need,” the poem reads. It turns out, however, that this image of the replacement of the Sun actually uses political language. Milton states, after all, that with the birth of the baby, the Sun witnesses the appearance of “a greater Sun” than “his bright Throne” could bear. We cannot miss, here, that Milton’s Sun sits like a King upon its throne, only to be deposed with the birth of the baby. It would seem, then, that the cosmic restructuring that the poem imagines – the rejection of the Gods of the pagan past, the apocalyptic second coming of Christ, the deposition of the Sun – directly correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the political overhaul of the English Revolution. If this is the case, then the whole poem can be read not just as a religious piece, but as a vehicle for Milton’s political ideology.
This brings us to a central interpretive question: did Milton intend for this poem to be political? The simple answer is that we can’t really know. After all, the poem is not strictly about politics, even if it uses something of political language. Falling short of a statement of intention from Milton himself, we really have no way of knowing what exactly his intentions were – we cannot, even through his works, concretely step inside his mind. The more nuanced point, however, is that we really needn’t care. To the seventeenth-century English reader, after all, Milton would have been associated with the political ideas he advocated in his pamphlets. In this sense, Milton, through all of his writing, would have cultivated a reputation as a revolutionary and an image as a radical political mind. In line with the thinking of Foucault, then, we can say that Milton existed through his writing not merely as an author, but as an author-image with a distinctive ideology. As Foucault argues, the image of an author transcends the author themselves, such that “the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society.” Milton, then, offers an ideal example of Foucault’s argument, as the consideration of Milton as an author-image allows us to uncover the political ideologies of even his religious writings.
But then there is one last step to figuring out what the poem is really after. As we can already see, the poem’s focus on radical millenarianism correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the English Revolution in that both concepts are interested in the creation of a heavenly state. Through this line of thinking, however, we can specify that the removal of the Sun from its “throne,” a part of the poem’s cosmic restructuring of the world, seems to be an allegory for the deposition of the King. The cause of this regicide is, in the poem’s terms, the birth of the baby, which is the source of the apocalypse and the revolution that follows. Now is the time to note, however, the central curiosity of the entire poem: it never actually names the baby as Jesus. Throughout the poem, baby is referred to only in the third person – he is referred to only as the “son of heavn’s eternal king,” the “prince of light,” the “babe.” Indeed, the poem never actually addresses Jesus himself. To imply that the poem would not be read as a reference to Jesus, of course, would be off the mark; after all, it references the nativity in its title. However, if we strictly consider the language of the poem in isolation, this observation does leave the identity of the source of the revolution unresolved and ambiguous.
Indeed, the babe the poem is celebrating is an unnamed source of revolution. But then we must remember that this poem is not really about the nativity; when we consider its radical millenarian position, we see that fashions its telling of the nativity story as a prophecy of the second coming. And in proceeding to invite the reader into its post-apocalyptic world, the poem is really inviting the reader to join the revolutionary cause that this newborn babe ignites. If the babe in the poem is the instigator of the revolution, then when the poem is taken as an allegory for seventeenth-century England, the babe must be the leading crusader of the revolutionary cause, the one who leads the charge for the beheading of the King. And as we already saw, to the seventeenth-century English reader, Milton had cultivated an author-image as the main advocate of the Revolution, a position that would be only further cemented by Paradise Lost, which would affirm his stalwart defense of the revolutionary cause even in the years after the Glorious Restoration. It might just be possible, then, that the poem does more than just issue of prophecy of the second coming. Rather, it might just be that when we consider the poem in terms of Milton’s representative author-image, the poem fashions Milton himself as the embodiment of the second coming, he who ignites the flames of revolution.
J. Martin Evans, “The Poetry of Absence.” In The Miltonic Moment, 11-38. (University Press of Kentucky, 1998) 21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hxgd.6.
Christopher Hill, “The Millennium and the Chosen Nation” in Milton and the English Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1978) 279.
Donald Swanson and John Mulryan. “Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: The Virgilian and Biblical Matrices.” Milton Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1989): 59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24464703.
Gordon Teskey, “Milton’s Early English Poems: The Nativity Ode, ‘L’Allegro’, ‘Il Penseroso’” in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).