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Henry Charles Beeching, ed. (1859–1919). Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse. 1903.

By John Milton (1608–1674)

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

THIS is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven’s eternal King,
Of weddèd maid and virgin mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,        5
  That he our daily 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        10
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,        20
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
Oh, run, prevent them with thy humble ode;
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;        25
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
  And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

It was the winter wild,
While the Heaven-born child        30
  All meanly wrapped in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
  With her great master so to sympathise:
It was no season then for her        35
To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.
Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
  To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,        40
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-eyed Peace;
  She, crowned with olive-green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
  With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing,        50
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.
No war, or battle’s sound,
Was heard the world around:
  The idle spear and shield were high up hung;        55
The hookèd chariot stood,
Unstained with hostile blood;
  The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng,
And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.        60
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 kissed,        65
  Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmèd wave.
The stars with deep amaze
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,        70
  Bending one way their precious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
  Or Lucifer that often warned them thence:
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,        75
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,        80
As his inferior flame
  The new enlightened 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 rustic row;
Full little thought they then,
That the mighty Pan
  Was kindly come to live with them below;        90
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
  As never was by mortal finger strook,        95
Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringèd noise,
  As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.        100
Nature that heard such sound,
Beneath the hollow round
  Of Cynthia’s seat, the airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,        105
  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,        110
  That with long beams the shame-faced night arrayed;
The helmèd cherubim,
And sworded seraphim,
  Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,        115
With unexpressive notes to Heaven’s new-born Heir.
Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
  But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great        120
His constellations set,
  And the well-balanced 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;        130
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.
For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
  Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;        135
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.        140
Yea Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
  Orbed in a rainbow; and like glories wearing
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,        145
  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,        150
  The babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
  So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first to those ychained in sleep,        155
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 smouldering clouds out brake;
The aged earth aghast        160
With terror of that blast,
  Shall from the surface to the centre 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, underground
In straiter limits bound,
  Not half so far casts his usurpèd sway,        170
And wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swings the scaly horror of his folded tail.
The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
  Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving;        175
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
  With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving;
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.        180
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
  A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale,
Edged with poplar pale,        185
  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,        190
  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,        195
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.
Peor and Baälim
Forsake their temples dim,
  With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,        200
Heaven’s queen and mother both,
  Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine;
The Lybic 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;        210
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 unshowered grass with lowings loud;        215
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
  Nought but profoundest hell can be his shroud;
In vain with timbrelled anthems dark
The sable-stolèd sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.        220
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,        225
  Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine;
Our Babe to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damnèd crew.
So when the sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,        230
  Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to the infernal jail,
  Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted fays        235
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.
But see the virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest,
  Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
Heaven’s youngest teemèd star        240
Hath fixed her polished car,
  Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending:
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed angels sit in order serviceable.