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 …
From John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
What is “the Supreme Christmas poem in the English language”? This must have been more of a stumper than I thought, because I asked the question Tuesday, and nobody got it right. I may have thrown you off by saying I’d give an American writer’s answer when the poem wasn’t written here. (Oh, sons and daughters of Cambridge! Where were you when a fellow Cantabrigian needed you?) The novelist Reynolds Price argues – and many others would agree – that the poem is John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Price says of Milton and his poem:
“The most powerful early component of his genius became visible in December 1629. While on the winter vacation from his studies at Cambridge, he wrote his initial indispensable poem, an ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ It was, almost certainly, the result – only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday – of his eagerness to exhibit a first fruit of the high calling he sensed within himself. And in the freewheeling rhetorical rapture which pours out memorable phrases in joyous profusion, in its complex musical urgency, and its unquestioned Christian sense of God’s immanence in nature, the ode continues to be the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.”
Reynolds Price in an essay on Milton in the just-published Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback) www.pauldrybooks.com, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser. Price, the poet and novelist, is the James B. Duke Professor English at Duke University www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_Price.
The first lines of Milton’s poem appear at the top of this post. You can read the annotated full text in the Milton Reading Room on the Dartmouth College site http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml. Please note that on this template I can’t indent the lines as Milton did.
Did you know the answer to Tuesday’s question? An easy way to become better acquainted with Milton’s poetry is to go to the free site Cyber Hymnal and listen the hymn “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind,” which you can hear by clicking on this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/e/letuglad.htm. (You will hear the music immediately when you click.) The words to “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind” come from Milton’s poem with the same title, which he wrote when he was 15. You can read the poem and listen to the music simultaneously at Cyber Hymnal www.cyberhymnal.org, which also offers at no cost the words and music to thousands of other hymns, including religious Christmas carols.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.