Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
  The early poems L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 11. On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.


But if Milton obeyed a common, though not quite universal, law in treading the mere high-road for some time, a parting of the ways came in the most striking fashion with On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, composed in the year of his majority. Most striking—for the opening stanzas of the proem, though much finer than anything he had done, were still not quite Milton. Not merely Spenser, but the greater Davies, either Fletcher, several other poets actually or nearly contemporary, might have written them. The Hymn itself, in its very first lines, not merely in metre but in diction, in arrangement, in quality of phrase and thought alike, strikes a new note—almost a new gamut of notes. The peculiar stateliness which redeems even conceit from frivolity or frigidity; the unique combination of mass and weight with easy flow; the largeness of conception, imagery, scene; above all, perhaps, the inimitable stamp of phrase and style—attained, chiefly, by cunning selection and collocation of epithet—give the true Milton. “Gaudy” is not an out-of-the-way word, and it may have been suggested to him by the fine Marlowesque line of Henry VI
       
The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day,
or by fifty other passages. But, placed exactly where it is in the first stanza, it colours, values, composes the whole. The greater beauties of the piece that follow—the “reign of peace”; the music of the spheres; the silencing of the oracles; and the flight of the dethroned idols—are well known. The piece gives us all its author’s poetry in nuce—his union of majesty and grace, his unique and all-compelling style, his command of “solemn music” such as had never before been known.
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  We cannot, of course, go through all the minor poems in detail; but The Passion or, rather, the note at its fragmentary close, deserves notice because it completes the testimony of The Nativity. That showed us the poet: this shows us the critic whom, as has been well remarked, every great poet must contain. “This Subject the Author, finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” There have not been many poets who would have been “nothing satisfied” with such lines as
        …… ……
He sov’ran Priest stooping his regall head
His starry front low-rooft beneath the skies;
or, best of all,
       
See see the Chariot, and those rushing wheels,
That whirl’d the Prophet up at Chebar flood.
But Milton felt this dissatisfaction: and Milton was right. His hand was still uncertain. It had slipped from the helm as he burst into the hitherto silent sea of the style of the Nativity, and he had drifted into mere respectable Fletcherian pastiche with some better touches. And he knew this: as, doubtless, he had known the other. There could be no doubt about him after the acquisition and demonstration of the double knowledge.
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CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  The early poems L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus  
 
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