I am singing the King of Heaven, bringer of peace, and the fortunate days promised by the Holy Book, the wanderings of God and the stabling under a poor roof of Him who rules with his Father the realms above; the star that led the wizards, the hymning of angels in the air and the gods flying to theirendangered fanes. This poem I made as a birthday gift for Christ; the first light of Christmas dawn brought me the theme.” (qtd. by Walter Taylor Field, 1907)
Between 1803 and 1815, visionary poet and visual artist William Blake painted on commission two sets of watercolors to illustrate the poem—one for the Rev. Joseph Thomas (the “Thomas set”), and one for Thomas Butts (the “Butts set”). Each set contains six watercolors which are very similar to one another, though not identical. The list of illustrations is as follows. (You’ll notice that not all the stanzas are illustrated.)
- The Descent of Peace (stanzas 1-3)
- The Annunciation to the Shepherds (stanzas 8-12)
- The Old Dragon (stanza 18)
- The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (stanzas 19-23)
- The Flight of Moloch (stanza 23)
- The Night of Peace (stanza 27)
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature, in awe to him,
Had doffed 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 woos 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-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;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
The Descent of Peace (stanzas 1-3)
William Blake, “The Descent of Peace” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.4 x 25.5 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Peace breaks through the heavenly spheres, dispersing the clouds and waving her myrtle wand, while Nature (below) covers her nakedness with a snowy veil as she pays reverence to her Lord.
The Shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan1
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 music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet
As never was by mortal finger strook,
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.
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat2 the airy 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 shamefaced Night arrayed;
The helmèd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive3 notes, to Heaven’s newborn Heir.
Such music (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-balanced World on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (stanzas 8-12)
William Blake, “The Annunciation to the Shepherds” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25.5 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England.
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 usurpèd sway,
And, wroth to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges6 the scaly horror of his folded tail.
William Blake, “The Old Dragon” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25.3 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England.
The Beast and the Whore of Babylon, elsewhere associated with institutionalized religion by Blake, are here overthrown along with Satan
The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (stanzas 19-23)
William Blake, “The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Pagan worshipers burn an offering to Apollo as his spirit flees its statue in fear. (The statue depicts Apollo’s defeat of the giant serpent Python, who had tormented his mother during her pregnancy.) To the right, a disheveled Nymph hides in a thicket to mourn, while above her, a train of refugee gods and goddesses fills the sky.
The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
Will hollow shriek the steep of Delphos1 leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
Edgèd with poplar pale,
From haunted spring, and dale
The parting Genius2 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 Lars3 and Lemures4 moan with midnight plaint;
In urns, and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens5 at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.
Peor and Baalim6
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;7
And moonèd Ashtaroth,8
Heaven’s Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine:
The Libyc Hammon9 shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz10 mourn.
And sullen Moloch,11 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,12 and Orus,13 and the dog Anubis,14 haste.
The Flight of Moloch (stanza 23)
William Blake, “The Flight of Moloch” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.7 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Description: Worshipers of Moloch clang together cymbals and blow on trumpets as part of their infant sacrifice ritual. As they do, Moloch’s winged spirit departs from the molded image. The advent of his enemy, Jesus, has scared him away.
The winged figure of the accuser, so like the spirit of Moloch, cements that god’s identification with Blake’s Spectre
But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
Time is our tedious Song should here have ending,
Heav’ns youngest-teemed Star [ 240 ]
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending.
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.
The Night of Peace (stanza 27)