“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people … ”
—Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)
Some eccentric designer should craft a manger scene based on John Milton’s first great poem: 1629’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” There would be many familiar tropes: the “Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet” who “from far upon the Eastern rode” to bring a “present to the Infant God.” Surrounding Jesus’s crib would be the “Shepherds on the Lawn” gazing upon the infant swaddled by that “wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother.” Of course, there would be the baby Jesus himself, the “Heav’n-born-childe … in smiling infancy” who “meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies.” None of those elements would be out of place on the lawn of a suburban church.
But that’s where my hypothetical Miltonic manger would depart from the familiar, because Milton’s Christmas story has an epic metaphysical violence as its theme. For Milton—and Christianity for that matter—Christ was coming to conquer. In Milton’s Advent, Christ vanquished the demonic pagan “gods that were suddenly destroyed in their own shrines.” When the twenty-one-year-old Milton wrote his nativity ode, he was following what Renaissance humanists called the rota Virgilii, the wheel of Virgil. This was the idea that poets should pattern the progression of their work after Virgil’s literary triad, beginning their vocation with a pastoral and concluding with an epic. Milton did, of course: his crowning achievement, three decades later, was Paradise Lost. For the nativity ode, Milton took the theme of an innocent babe born to redeem the world, just as Virgil explored in his pre-Christian poem “Eclogue IV” (which many later thinkers interpreted as a type of prophecy). If Virgil sang of the “great cycle of periods born anew” then Milton wished to do the same.
Barbara Lewalski writes that the nativity ode reflected Milton’s “desire to attempt the highest subject and to take on the role of the bardic Poet-Priest” as Virgil once had. Milton confirmed this intention to his childhood friend Charles Diodati, the son of an exiled Italian Protestant family, and in many ways the great love of the poet’s life. Milton told Diodati that he wrote the poem in its entirety on Christmas Day in 1629. With more than a bit of grandeur, Milton explained to Diodati that “I sing to the peace-bringing God descended from heaven, and the blessed generations covenanted in the sacred books … I sing the starry axis and the singing hosts in the sky, and of the gods suddenly destroyed.” The year 1629 was an auspicious one: England was on the verge of civil war, and Milton would go on to become a propagandist for the parliamentary cause. The civil wars were precipitated by the Puritan’s desire to abolish the superstitious “Romish” practices of the royal Stuarts
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” grapples with how a Christian was to understand those gods—were they mere fictions invented by the credulous, or beings who had an existential reality? And if the latter, how then were we to classify Apollo, Osiris, and Moloch? The obvious interpretation, and one held by early Church fathers like Tertullian and Saint Clement of Alexandria, was that they were demons who had tricked the ancients into worship. Milton concurred, interpreting them as infernal, although the nativity ode evidences a regretful twinge at their defeat. There is, after all, a risk in rejecting the existence of all the deities save for the one true God, for anti-pagan iconoclasm always threatens to morph into more complete atheism. And so like those theologians before him, Milton preserved the gods as real, even if they were entities to be defeated in a mythological battle.
A manger scene built from Milton’s poem would have to include the defeat of the pagan gods: a“voice of weeping” is heard, a “loud lament; / From haunted spring and dale” and the “Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.” A nativity scene that only includes the quiet still of a Judean winter night, but not the wicked pagan gods of old choking on their blood or being expunged from their witchy groves by means of fire, is a nativity scene that is missing out on pyrotechnic possibilities.
In the shadows near our hypothetical suburban church’s shrubs, there could be “Apollo from his shrine,” evicted with “hollow shriek the steep of Delphos.” Imagine a plaster model of beautiful, hard-bodied, blond Apollo, with his crown of sunrays, cowering in fear as he looks yonder to the mewling infant. A little to the left of that there could be a group of Roman gods and death spirits who “moan with midnight plaint … A drear, and dying sound.” Even more exciting, there would be the bestial creatures commonly worshiped on the Mediterranean’s southern shore. Our Egyptian favorites would be to the southwest of the manger, maybe near the road in front of my imagined church, so that motorists could make out the display of green-skinned Osiris in “Memphian Grove” alongside “Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis.” What Christmas couldn’t be improved by the inclusion of the jackal-faced god of the dead?
And of course there would be those ancient Canaanite gods like Baalim and “mooned Ashtaroth” with her lunar crown, the ram-headed Hammon, and the perennially resurrected Phoenician fertility and agriculture god Thammuz. Where would our manger be without that most grotesque of deities, the bull-headed Moloch whose “burning Idol all of blackest hue” once immolated children in pagan sacrifice from Carthage to the Levant? I envision a smaller (though still impressive) version of the mechanical models of Moloch the Carthaginians designed—they contained a mechanism so that their own children “rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.” Appropriate, since one of the points of the nativity is that no more infants need be sacrificed to false gods, once this infant God’s birth had ensured the defeat of this demonic pantheon.
I do take a perverse joy in the thought of some pageant featuring Anubis being violently expelled from his Nile temples, but my purpose is more serious than my rhetoric. The nativity ode is more than just Milton’s first great lyric in English (he’d written accomplished Latin verse before), and it’s more than just a precursor to Paradise Lost. Rather, what Milton presents is a strange meditation on the paradox of the implicit violence at the center of Advent. Milton makes the defeated deities of yore his muses, seeing a profundity in their eclipse. It’s not just the downfall of polytheism that attracts him, but Christmas’s intrinsically apocalyptic gloss: the rising of a new Son is signaled by the fading embers of the dying sun. Plutarch recorded that the sailor Thamus heard the cry “The great god Pan is dead!” echo across the water; as a Christian Milton hears that as a cry of victory, but as a classicist he hears it as mourning.
There is an ironic melancholy in this victory, a guilty and anxious sadness at the deaths of these old gods. “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is homophonic with “mourning,” for committed Puritan though he may be, Milton is also a humanist, and he grieves the passing of the classical world. The poem reminds me of our generation’s Miltonic fantasy: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. In Gaiman’s novel, the character Shadow laments that “the old gods are ignored … Either you’ve been forgotten, or you’re scared you’re going to be rendered obsolete.” But as with the nativity ode, this isn’t quite right. The form itself shows that the old gods can never truly be forgotten. Milton’s biographer Anna Beer writes that “the excluded pagan gods remain within the poem, with a question mark over their complete obliteration from Milton’s poetic imagination.”
The bard may have written that “the oracles are dumm,” but he of all people suspected that, if you strained your ears, you might still be able to hear an echo of that old prophecy. After all, the early Christians built their shrines atop pagan groves, used their symbols, and commandeered their narratives. Reformation tried to expunge such details, as during the years of Interregnum when the Puritans would ban Christmas because of its Saturnalian associations, when they rejected the compromises of Interpretatio Christiana that had allowed those old gods to hide in the yule log and the Christmas tree, in our folk customs, in the very names of the week. For if the gods are real, then their erasure from paganism to Christianity, or from Catholicism to Protestantism, can never be totally accomplished. The poet, and perhaps the infant’s, victory is partial—at least for now.
The critic James Simpson writes that even as Milton “destroys the idols of foreign gods … he is haunted by the possibility that he is himself encouraging idolatry.” That is always the tragic paradox of iconoclasm: in destroying those old shrines we admit their enchanted power. And the dramatic irony of the nativity ode is such that even as the “Virgin blest, / Hath laid her Babe to rest” maybe those old gods are also simply sleeping, waiting to be awakened at some future solstice. As we look upon the peaceful victory of the nativity, as we celebrate Christmas erected upon the ruins of pagan traditions, we can see those older, darker gods peeking out at the margins of the manger. Apollo in the shadowy northwest, Moloch by the road, Osiris in the shrubs: dreaming that old gods can always be born again.
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an expert on Renaissance literature. His first collection, America and Other Fictions, will be released by Zero Books in 2018.