The Paris Review

John Milton’s Strange Christmas Poem

“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people … ”
—Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

Some eccentric designer should craft a manger scene based on John Milton’s first great poem: 1629’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” There would be many familiar tropes: the “Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet” who “from far upon the Eastern rode” to bring a “present to the Infant God.” Surrounding Jesus’s crib would be the “Shepherds on the Lawn” gazing upon the infant swaddled by that “wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother.” Of course, there would be the baby Jesus himself, the “Heav’n-born-childe … in smiling infancy” who “meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies.” None of those elements would be out of place on the lawn of a suburban church.

But that’s where my hypothetical Miltonic manger would depart from the familiar, because Milton’s Christmas story has an epic metaphysical violence as its theme. Forthe wheel of Virgil. This was the idea that poets should pattern the progression of their work after Virgil’s literary triad, beginning their vocation with a pastoral and concluding with an epic. Milton did, of course: his crowning achievement, three decades later, was . For the nativity ode, Milton took the theme of an innocent babe born to redeem the world, just as Virgil explored in his pre-Christian poem “Eclogue IV” (which many later thinkers interpreted as a type of prophecy). If Virgil sang of the “great cycle of periods born anew” then Milton wished to do the same.

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