On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity

The young John MiltonA few days late, alas. I had this one done in time for Christmas, but with one thing and another it’s only now I’m posting it.

As Warren Zevon once sang, “And Johnny is my main man.” Of late, in addition to my other projects, I’ve been working steadily on a couple of scholarly projects involving John Milton. I’ll finish an essay on temptation this week. Well, I won’t finish it, as writing is never really finished. I’ll simply abandon it–but not until I’ve given it one version of my best shot.

To keep the mood going and the context fresh and vital, I thought I’d do a podcast of Milton’s first mature publication, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” I describe it a bit in the first part of the podcast. Suffice it to say that, like all great art, this poem proceeds from many sources and emerges into many vectors. Some of these are exhilarating. Some are admirable. Some are worth wonder. Some are scholarly curiosities. Some represent the struggles of a believer in many things, not all of them consistent. You’ll notice that Milton lingers, very lovingly and harshly too, on the pagan gods the Christ child has come to banish. I think Milton had many mixed motives and ambivalent emotions as he did so. To believe in anything is to disbelieve in other things, no matter how broad one’s outlook. Milton knew and felt this reality more keenly than any other great artist I know. The struggle was costly, and revelatory, and complex. My own critical position is that Milton understood the struggle and the cost, and created astonishing art to represent these complexities out of both certainty and uncertainty, settled conclusions and wandering appetites. He tells us so, pretty explicitly and quite beautifully, in all his work–if we’ve a mind and heart to read it so.

But now I’m writing my essay, and time is my tedious post should here have ending. Wherever you are, geographically or politically or epistemologically or religiously, I hope you enjoy this example of a 21-year-old poet exulting in his newly fledged artistic powers and taking the measure of some of the best poetry ever written in English. As I read it, I felt again the sensation I had in the fall of 1980 when I read this poem for the first time–the sensation that here was a verbal imagination that could achieve any effect it wished to, an imagination whose wishes were born of the desire for human progress, human justice, and human community. A desire more fierce and visionary than that of any other poet. A desire that could also embrace tenderness, and poignancy, and order serviceable.

Happy birthday, 2013.

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