Thursday, June 12, 2008
On 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,' Pt. 2
Paradise Lost, like most epic poems, has a certain symphonic sweep and grandeur to it; but Milton’s greater, or at least more surprising, achievement, is the way he infuses his early poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” with the same sweep. Like much of the poet’s early work, “Nativity” owes a good deal to sound--both the overall symphonic structure and individual aural descriptions of the action of the poem.
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” opens peacefully and serenely, underscored, perhaps, by soft strings and flute. The first stanza develops slowly in customary iambic pentameter--a meter so commonplace that it is almost beyond our noticing it--and features a good deal of soft sounds, s’s and m’s: “This is the month, and this the happy morn” (1). All is right in the first section of the poem, and Milton allows his vision of the redeemed world to expand until it envelops everything. The poet sounds relaxed here, even as he adds in references to the Greek pantheon and to Christ’s eventual death for mankind’s benefit.
All of this changes when Milton reaches the long “Hymn” portion of the ode; he restricts his iambic pentameter to two lines per seven-line stanza and fills much of the rest with iambic trimeter, a skipping, tripping rhythm that moves us along much faster than the poem’s introduction did. Milton still uses the softer orchestral instruments for the first part of the hymn; his message, after all, is one of eternal peace, and so he still uses soft sounds and quiet words like “speeches fair” (37), “fears to cease” (45), and the particularly smooth “the winds with wonder whist” (64). The sound of his words is, for the most part, calm early in the “Hymn,” but his rhythm is speedy--this combination produces an overall feel of excitement, as though his subject so moved the poet that he could not sit still.
But as the hymn speeds cheerily along, Milton slowly switches to a minor key, so subtly that we do not notice it the first time through. He supposedly discounts evil by bringing up harsh (both sonically and denotatively) words and phrases like “battle” (53), “hostile blood” (57), and “the trumpet spake not to the armed throng” (58) only to dismiss them; but these words are a minor-key bell he cannot un-ring, and he thus purposely subverts his own cheerful message.
And indeed, as we progress through the hymn, its music turns darker and darker--the tympani gets louder and the woodwinds peter out. Although Milton speaks of the north star rather than the devil in line 74, his use of the name “Lucifer” is unsettling, an unintentional prefiguring of the villain of Paradise Lost. We see this again and again: Milton will say something like “The shady gloom / Had given day her room” (77-78)--in theory these lines are bright but in practice they feel dark.
Milton himself uses symphonic imagery for the hymn, and as the imagery increases, so does the “volume” of the hymn. The angels play “music sweet” for the shepherds” (93); the angels sing loud and “unexpressive notes” to the Christ child (116); and Milton invokes the chimes and, tellingly, “heaven’s deep organ” (128, 130). The intensity rises and rises, and finally, in its description of hell, the hymn explodes. “With such a horrid clang,” Milton writes, as the drums boom, “As on Mount Sinai rang / While the red fire, and smould’ring clouds out brake” (157-159). For several sections, the hymn is huge, loud, clanging, filled with phrases like “hideous hum” (174), “hollow shriek” (178), and “lowings loud” (215). The pastoral dream with which Milton started has turned into a loud, horrible nightmare, as the poet realizes that heaven’s perfection has still, 1,600 years after the events he describes, arrived on earth.
And then it winds down, the volume and intensity decreasing as Milton switches back to calmer words and sounds. But the ending of the poem is not the bucolic paradise that was the beginning. Instead, we’re left with an uneasy calm. The Christ child sleeps—again, violins and flutes—but around him are “shadows pale” (232), demons quieted but not silenced for good.