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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 December 2021

Milton offers something unexpected at Christmas, Malcolm Guite finds

IN ONE of G. K. Chesterton’s many essays on Dickens and Christmas, celebrating not only Dickens’s special associations with Christmas through A Christmas Carol, but also his gift, throughout his writing, for evoking the hugger-mugger cosiness and genial hospitality of the season, Chesterton draws a contrast between the spirit of Dickens, so congenial to Christmas, and the apparent severity of some other writers. He says that, while we might all wish that Dickens himself could join us at our own Christmas festivities and add to the jollity, no one, sitting down to their turkey and plum pudding, would say “Oh, that Milton were here to share this!”

This is understandable, given the Puritan aversion to the feast — indeed, given Cromwell’s legislation to ban it — but it is, I think, a little hard on Milton. For, as a young man, long before the later severities of the Roundheads, Milton wrote one of the great Christmas poems. He was only 21, and still sporting the long flowing locks that had him dubbed “The Lady of Christ’s”, when he penned the immortal “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”. Milton may not offer us mulled wine and mince pies, but what he does offer us on a Christmas morning is music. His “Ode” contains the greatest celebration of music, the realisation that the music of the Christmas angels is not a one-off interlude, but the dawn of the true cosmic music, the music of creation and redemption:

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.

Here, Milton suggests that it was in and through Divine music that the world itself was made, and later suggests that, if we could hear such music again, we would ourselves be remade and eternal.

Then comes the prayer for that music to be heard once more, addressing the spheres themselves as they turn:

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 angelic symphony.

It is customary for people to describe Milton’s poetry as itself a kind of organ music, and he certainly plays with that image himself here — although C. S. Lewis, in a very perceptive comment in A Preface to Paradise Lost, suggests that we ourselves, as we receive the poetry in all the height and depth of our sensibility, are the true instrument on which Milton plays: “We are his organ: when he appears to be describing Paradise, he is in fact drawing out the Paradisal Stop in us.”

So, contra Chesterton, I will be inviting Milton to join Dickens at our Christmas feast. I shall certainly re-read A Christmas Carol, and have a hot toddy at my side when I relive Fezziwig’s ball; but, when it comes to the Carols from King’s, it will be Milton who warms and furnishes my mind with the true spirit in which to hear again “the nine-fold harmony”, and the poets, as well as the choristers, will join together to “Make up full consort to the angelic symphony”.

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