“Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton and Wiliam Blake

A few decades prior to writing his famous epic, Paradise LostJohn Milton composed this thirty-one-stanza ode—his first major work in English. Written in 1629 when he was just 21, the poem examines the cosmic significance of the incarnation, celebrating Christ’s triumph over the gods of paganism from the manger.

Regarding the poem’s composition, Milton wrote to his friend Charles Diodati,

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.)

  1. The Descent of Peace (stanzas 1-3)
  2. The Annunciation to the Shepherds (stanzas 8-12)
  3. The Old Dragon (stanza 18)
  4. The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods (stanzas 19-23)
  5. The Flight of Moloch (stanza 23)
  6. The Night of Peace (stanza 27)

 

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

THE HYMN

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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.

Blake nativity

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.

VIII.
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.

IX.
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet
As never was by mortal finger strook,
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.

X.
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.

XI.
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.

XII.
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.

William Blake, "The Annunciation to the Shepherds," 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25.5 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. 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.

XVIII.
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.

The Old Dragon by William Blake

William Blake, “The Old Dragon” (Thomas set), 1809. Watercolor on paper, 19.3 x 25.3 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England.

blake7

The Beast and the Whore of Babylon, elsewhere associated with institutionalized religion by Blake, are here overthrown along with Satan

The Overthrow of Apollo by William BlakeThe 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.

XIX.
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.

XX.
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.

XXI.
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.

XXII.
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.

XXIII.
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 by William Blake

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.

blake8

The winged figure of the accuser, so like the spirit of Moloch, cements that god’s identification with Blake’s Spectre

XXVII

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.

blake6The Night of Peace (stanza 27)

Posted on December 14, 2012by Victoria Emily Jones

Also see “Winged Life” at https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/09/12/william-blakes-mystic-visions-stunning-paintings/

 

 
Advertisements

Winged Life

blake1

Winged Life: William Blake’s Mystic Visions & Stunning Paintings

William Blake’s paintings are especially stunning when you see them close up.

blake4

blake2

blake9

blake5

blake8

blake7

William Blake (1757–1827), one of the greatest poets in the English language, also ranks among the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. For Blake, the Bible was the greatest work of poetry ever written, and comprised the basis of true art.

For a slideshow of 47 paintings by William Blake, go to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/william-blake

For William Blake’s Complete Works, go to his archive at http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm


William Blake’s Visions

From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The first may have occurred as early as the age of four when, according to one anecdote, the young artist “saw God” when God “put his head to the window”. .. At the age of eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, Blake claimed to have seen “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them. As a young apprentice, he was sent to copy images from the Gothic churches in London. Blake experienced visions in the Westminster Abbey, he saw Christ and his Apostles and a great procession of monks and priests and heard their chant.

Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake’s works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual centre of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. Blake believed he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by the same Archangels.

In a letter of condolence to William Hayley, dated 6 May 1800, four days after the death of Hayley’s son, Blake wrote:

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

In a letter to John Flaxman, dated 21 September 1800, Blake wrote:

[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace… I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.