Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,' Pt. 1

G.K. Chesteron says somewhere in Orthodoxy that Christianity fulfills all religions and not just the Judaism out of which it came into its own. I wouldn't have expected to find echoes of that idea in John Milton, so stereotyped as a dour, unbending, humorless Puritan. (Much of that stereotype, I suspect, stems from our cultural misreading of Puritans, who, whatever their conservatism, always had room for a pint of ale, among other things.) But anyway, I'm finding Milton far more charitable and broad-minded than I remembered and expected.

People's Exhibit A: the early poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Milton's early work can be perfunctory and conventional, but there's been at least a line or two of great power in everything I've read from the period. "Nativity" is no exception; there's his description of Christ as "that light insufferable" (l. 8), his prophecy of universalism (ll. 139-140), and the stanza-length description of Armageddon (ll. 157-164, just for starters. But I, good Presbyterian that I am, am ashamed when I talk about aesthetic pleasures (which, due to a class assignment, I will discuss in part two of this analysis) and prefer to focus on philosophical issues in the text.

My interpretation, then, hinges on my earlier paraphrase of Chesterton; to wit, I think Milton uses the occasion of Christ's birth to praise other religions, even if he ultimately dismisses them as inadequate. For Milton, as for Chesterton, other religions have value in that they prefigure the Incarnation and Atonement. In "Nativity," other religions appear in the guise of classical Paganism, an important metaphor in nearly all of Milton's early work. He associates Christ with Pan, for example, this equivalency between the two Great Shepherds being earlier proposed by Edmund Spenser in The Shepheardes Calendar. Indeed, it's Pan, not Christ, for whom the shepherds wait in the fields. I'm not well-versed enough in mythology to say whether or not people waited for Pan to return, but that seems to be the effect Milton's aiming at: As the shepherds wait for Pan, their patron god, they receive Christ, Pan's true form, instead.

Elsewhere, Milton even suggests that Christ's birth somehow even fulfills naturalism and materialism:
Nature that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling. (ll. 101-106)
These lines remind me of the Eastern Orthodox view on the Incarnation. The Orthodox take Ephesians 1:23 (". . . the fulness of Him who fills all in all" [NAS]) seriously and literally; for them--and perhaps for Milton, too--Christ's becoming flesh makes all flesh, all of Nature, real in a way it wasn't before.

Milton could stop here, but he doesn't, and it's his refusal to accept simple answers that makes "Nativity" worth reading and rereading. For it's not enough to say that other religions prefigure Christianity; Milton must then make it clear that Christ's birth immediately makes them obsolete. The shepherds may wait around for Pan, but Pan ultimately has nothing to say. As in Paradise Lost, Milton invokes the muse, but here she's dumbfounded:
Say heavenly 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 (ll. 15-18).
Of course she doesn't. She and the rest of the pantheon have been waiting subconsciously for this moment, but it's so beyond their understanding that they must remain mute. The heaven Christ descends from is "by the sun untrod" (l. 19)--Apollo, who's been everywhere else, can't get clearance into the Trinity's boardroom (ll. 10-11). Indeed, Apollo stands, motionless, in awe,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame,
The new enlightened world no more should need;
He saw a greater sun appear
Than his bright throne, or burning axle-tree could bear (ll. 80-84).
Apollo's "oracles are dumb" (l. 173) and he "Can no more divine" (l. 177); even Nature, recently filled, steps aside: "She knew such harmony alone / Could hold all heaven and earth in happier union" (ll. 107-108). These lines do not signify the destruction of the old order but rather its voluntary stepping aside; after all, even the seraphim and Cherubim are capable only of "unexpressive notes to heaven's newborn heir" (l. 116).

So again: More magnaminous but just as complex as I expected from Milton. Part two, my mandatory two-pager on "Sound in 'On the Nativity,' " will follow tomorrow.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I don't know if I'd talk about the Trinity in the context of Milton without some footnotes--you're liable to start a brawl among the Miltonists. ;)

cecile127 said...

This was earlier in Milton's life when he was still a Trinitarian. He hadn't yet disavowed the idea of the Trinity.