Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IV. The Higher Life
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CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IV. The Higher Life.  1904.
 
I. The Divine Element—(God, Christ, the Holy Spirit)
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
John Milton (1608–1674)
 
THIS is the month, and this the happy morn,
  Wherein the Son of heaven’s eternal king,
Of wedded maid and virgin mother born,
  Our great redemption from above did bring—
  For so the holy sages once did sing—        5
That He our deadly 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        15
  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 odors sweet!
Oh! run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
  And lay it lowly at His blessed feet;        25
  Have thou the honor first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel choir,
From out His secret altar touched with hallowed fire.
 
THE HYMN
      It was the winter wild
      While the heaven-born child        30
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        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,        45
      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 a universal peace through sea and land.
 
      Nor 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 sovereign 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 axle-tree could bear.
 
      The shepherds on the lawn,        85
      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 stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took;
The air, such pleasure loath 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 shamefaced night arrayed;
      The helmèd cherubim
      And sworded seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn choir,        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!        125
      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 bass 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
      Inwrap 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 yet lies in smiling infancy
      That on the bitter cross
      Must redeem our loss,
So both Himself and us to glorify.
Yet first to those ye chained 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 smould’ring clouds outbrake;
      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        165
      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,        170
And, wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
 
      The oracles are dumb:
      No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched 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 lares 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 moonèd 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,        205
      Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue;
      In vain, with cymbal’s 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—
Naught but profoundest hell can be his shroud;
In vain, with timbrelled anthems dark,
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.        220
 
      He feels from Juda’s land
      The dreaded infant’s hand—
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyne;
      Nor all the gods beside
      Longer dare abide—        225
Not Typhon huge, ending in snaky twine;
Our babe, to show His God-head 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.
 
 
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