John Milton's Nativity Ode was first published in Poems (1645); it attracted little attention before the eighteenth century, when its Spenserian imagery became very popular indeed. The introduction employs the alexandrine with the rhyme-royal stanza Spenser had used in Fowre Hymnes. J. B. Leishman suggests that the idea for Milton's elaborate temporal structure is taken from Spenser's Epithalamion, Milton's Minor Poems (1969) 55.
William Trumbull to Alexander Pope: "I return you the book you were pleased to send me, and with it your obliging letter.... I expected to find, what I have met with, an admirable genius in those poems, not only because they were Milton's, or were approved by Sir Henry Wotton, but because you had commended them; and give me leave to tell you, that I know nobody so like yourself to equal him, even at the age he wrote most of them, as yourself" 19 October 1705; Correspondence, ed. Whitwell Elwin (1871) 1:1-2.
Thomas Warton: "This Ode, in which the many learned allusions are highly poetical, was probably composed as a college exercise at Cambridge, our author being now only twenty one years old. In the edition of 1645, in its title it is said to have been written in 1629. We are informed by himself, that he was employed in writing this piece, in the conclusion of the sixth Elegy to his friend Deodate, which appears to have been sent about the close of the month of December.... The concluding pentameter of the paragraph points out the best part of the Ode. . . 'The Oracles are dumb; | No voice or hideous hum,' &c. &c. The rest of the Ode chiefly consists of a string of affected conceits, which his early youth, and the fashion of the times, can only excuse. But there is a dignity and simplicity in these lines, worthy the maturest years, and the best times [quotes stanza 6]. Nor is the poetry of the stanza immediately following, an expression or two excepted, unworthy of Milton" in Milton, Poems upon Several Occasions (1790) 264-65n.
John Aikin: "There is more of portrait in a very elegant representation of Peace by Milton, in that juvenile, but highly classical, performance, his Christmas Hymn: "But he, her fears to cease, | Sent down the meek-eyed Peace [. . .]" I am acquainted with no addition to the imagery in these lines by other poets. It is scarcely necessary to take notice of the inaccuracy of using the word peace in a literal sense, in the same passage with its personification. Spenser is occasionally guilty of the same fault, which could only be owing to inattention" "Personification in Poetry" Monthly Magazine 6 (December 1798) 433-34.
Henry Hallam: "The Ode on the Nativity, far less popular than most of the poetry of Milton, is perhaps the finest in the English language. A grandeur, a simplicity, a breadth of manner, an imagination at once elevated and restrained by the subject, reign throughout it" Literature of Europe (1839-40; 1882) 3:263.
David Masson, describing Milton's early verse, was one of the first to apply the word "Spenserian" to a school of poets: "While Milton's readings in preceding and contemporary English poetry were very extensive, his chief favourites among immediately preceding poets were those whom we have called the Spenserians. To this succession of the Spenserians, if to any literary succession at all, Milton for the present belonged" Life of Milton (1859-94, 1965) 1:575.
George Saintsbury: "It was written in 1629, when all the great Elizabethans proper were dead or soon to die, and before the wonderful parade and concert of Caroline bird-song and bird-feather had well begun. The opening stanzas of rhyme-royal, if not entirely consummate, have something individual in them, and at any rate show more prosodic accomplishment than their predecessors on the 'Fair Infant' four years earlier. But when the 'Hymn' proper begins, where are the ears — or being there, of what length can they be? — that miss a wonderful nativity — speaking with reverence — in the world of prosody itself?" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:209-10.
Edward Payson Morton: "The true Spenserian stanzas of the seventeenth century are all but forgotten — I have no doubt that many of my readers are surprised at their number and length — and the work of the Fletchers is remembered rather than known. Indeed, the one Spenserian imitation in this century that can fairly be called both great and familiar to the present generation is Milton's 'Hymn on the Nativity,' which owes to Spenser only its concluding alexandrine. And yet, when Mr. Swinburne used Milton's stanza in his 'Ode to Victor Hugo' — the only other instance I know of, except the lone stanza in Gray's 'Ode for Music' (1769) — he carefully reduced the alexandrine to a pentameter in every one of his twenty-four stanzas" "The Spenserian Stanza before 1700" (1907) 14-15.
Herbert E. Cory: "It opens with a typical seventeenth century Spenserian prelude in that Spenserian variation of the rhyme-royal for which we have already seen his partiality. William Vaughn Moody chooses a word with a very expressive connotative value when he speaks of the 'quaint dulcity' which, through the influence of Giles Fletcher, appears in the opening stanzas. 'See how from far upon the Eastern road'.... Then the poem leaps into the swift, abrupt, ringing music of The Hymn, proper. Whatever lyrical strophes may have been suggestive, the stanza was Milton's own. And here was the first distinctly creative use of a final alexandrine since Spenser had shown its possibilities when he used it to give delicate music to the heavy, pedantic stanza-of-eight (abcbbcbc). In Milton's new stanza the sharp strokes of the trimeter couplets were controlled by the succeeding pentameters and a tetrameter modulated not too abruptly into the long, solemn swing of the final alexandrines. There are tasteless conceits here and there. But unhappy is he whose sensibilities are so fragile that the flaws blind him to the superb lyrical flashes that abound. Milton seems to have had Spenser as well as the Spenserians in his consciousness. It is probable that be borrowed an elaborate conceit from the Song to Eliza in the April eclogue of The Shepheards Calender, unhappily, to gild over his gold.... The more sonorous lines of Milton, despite their imitative artificiality of concept, are significant in the development of the music of his maturity" "Spenser, the Fletchers, and Milton" UCPMP 2 (1912) 350-51.
Raymond Dexter Havens: "splendid as this stanza is and masterly as is Milton's handling of it, the meter has made almost no impress on English verse. Perhaps our writers, who do not take kindly to elaborate stanzas that are not of their own invention, have not cared to use this one; but more probably the idea of doing so has never occurred to most of them. No doubt if some one had led the way, if Gray, for instance, had adopted the meter in his Elegy or Collins in his Ode to Evening, it would have had a wide vogue. To be sure, both Gray and Collins did employ variations of it, but not in a way that would be likely to give it popularity. For the eight lines that Gray wrote in in the Nativity meter he put into the least inspired of all his pieces, the Ode for Music (1769); and Collins changed the stanza so much by omitting its last two lines that, even if his Ode to Simplicity (1746) had attracted more attention, it would hardly have affected to vogue of Milton's poem" Influence of Milton (1922) 565-66.
A list of Milton's supposed borrowings from Phineas Fletcher is given in Gentleman's Magazine 56 (February 1786) 135n.
This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven's Eternal King,
Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
That glorious form, that light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heaven's high council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and, here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heaven, by the sun's team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See, how from far, upon the eastern road,
The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,
From out his secret altar touch'd with hallow'd fire.
It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature, in awe to him,
Had doff'd her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.
Only with speeches fair
She wooes the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow;
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;
Confounded, that her Maker's eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.
But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace;
She, crown'd with olives green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.
Nor war, or battle's sound,
Was heard the world around:
The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
But peaceful was the night,
Wherein the Prince of light
His reign of Peace upon the earth began:
The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kiss,
Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
The stars, with deep amaze,
Stand fix'd in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence;
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer, that often warn'd them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.
And, though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferiour flame
The new-enlighten'd world no more should need;
He saw a greater sun appear
Than his bright throne, or burning axletree, could bear.
The shepherds on the lawn,
Or e'er the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustick row;
Full little thought they then,
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.
When such musick sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
As never was by mortal finger strook;
Answering the stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.
Nature that heard such sound,
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the aery region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.
At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shamefac'd night array'd;
The helmed Cherubim,
And sworded Seraphim,
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display'd,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes, to Heaven's new-born Heir.
Such musick (as 'tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator Great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanc'd world on hinges hung;
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.
Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime Move in melodious time;
And let the base of Heaven's deep organ blow;
And, with your ninefold harmony,
Make up full consort to the angelick symphony.
For, if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
Yea, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orb'd in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
But wisest Fate says no,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe yet lies in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first, to those ychain'd in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep;
With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang,
While the red fire and smouldring clouds out brake:
The aged earth aghast,
With terrour of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the center shake;
When, at the world's last session,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.
And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for, from this happy day,
The old Dragon, under ground
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway;
And, wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly horrour of his folded tail.
The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetick cell.
The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale,
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flower-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint,
In urns, and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar Power foregoes his wonted seat.
Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-batter'd God of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heaven's queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
The Libyck Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with cymbals' ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue:
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshower'd grass with longings loud:
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest;
Nought but profoundest hell can be his shroud;
In vain with timbrell'd anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipt ark.
He feels from Juda's land
The dreaded Infant's hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands controul the damned crew.
So, when the sun in bed,
Curtain'd with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to the infernal jail,
Each fetter'd ghost slips to his several grave;
And the yellow-skirted Fayes
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-lov'd maze.
But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her babe to rest;
Time is, our tedious song should here have ending,
Heaven's youngest-teemed star
Hath fix'd her polish'd car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending:
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harness'd Angels sit in order serviceable.
[Todd (1801, 1826) 6:3-27]