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A Genius for Every Wood and Shore:
Milton’s Iconoclastic Nationalism in the “Nativity Ode” and “Lycidas”

Lauri Dietz
University of Notre Dame

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The question that frames this paper is, “Why did Milton decide to publish a collection of his earlier poems in 1645, a period in Milton’s career chiefly devoted to political and religious tracts?”  I suggest that Milton, by publishing them at the end of 1645, is demanding that the reader think about these poems in relation to the current political and religious turmoil associated with the coming end of the civil war.  Milton explicitly tells the reader to read “Lycidas” as the occasion that “foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy then in their height” (120).[1]  Even if Milton did not originally intend for “Lycidas” and other poems of the same period to be prophetic, by 1645, the potential prophetic effect cannot be ignored. For the purposes of this paper, I want to examine the two poems that frame the 1645 collection, the “Nativity Ode” and “Lycidas,” to uncover the nascent nationalism in these poems within the context of Milton’s religious and political views in 1645.  I will argue that the nascent nationalism in “Lycidas” directly responds to the “Nativity Ode” by participating in the Spenserian iconoclastic poetic tradition, reforming the epic genre so that Milton can legitimize his “prophecy” of a new English nation and national religion.

Milton begins publicly to construct his ideas of English nationalism in his prose works of the 1640s, which gives him incentive to find nationalism in his earlier poems.  Stella Revard makes a passing observation of the difference between the two publications of “Lycidas.”  She suggests that “when he contributed his English monody to the commemorative volume in 1637 [for the drowning of Edward King], Milton was addressing the Cambridge community; in 1645, he addressed England.”[2] In the same 1645 headnote where Milton names “Lycidas” as prophetic, he also names it a monody. While many critics quickly categorize it as a pastoral elegy, it is important to acknowledge that he now wants the reader to reread this poem as a prophetic monody.  Why? As with the “Nativity Ode,” Milton turns to the Muse for inspiration in writing “Lycidas,” but again is disappointed.  The narrator asks,

Who would not sing for Lycidas?  he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry brier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear. (10-14)

The “Nativity Ode” silently answers this question because its pagan Muse has “no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,” nor even a “humble ode” for the infant Jesus.  Lycidas, who already exists in the Christian world, cannot depend upon the pagan Muses to inspire a song for him either. Yet, the narrator requires that a song, later named a monody, be created in honor of his friend, Edward King. A monody is an ode for a single voice, whereas the term “ode” can designate both a choral and a singular performance.[3]  This distinction demonstrates how the “Nativity Ode” simultaneously exists as a hymn, a choir-poem, to the Christ Child and as an ode to the routed out Muse, since both hymn and ode can have choral voices but serve very different functions.  Milton emphasizes the singularity of the ode’s voice in “Lycidas” to validate his prophetic voice so that when civil war occurs, he will be able to rise above the combating voices as the true visionary for England.  Lycidas is the first casualty of war, and Milton wants England to learn its lesson before more needless deaths threaten to erode the “shore” of England.  Milton is addressing England with this monody and providing direction for the nation and the national religion.

Beyond these two poems’ generic connection as odes, close inspection reveals many intertextual references in “Lycidas” to the “Nativity Ode.”  Specifically, “Lycidas” could be read as an elaboration of Stanza XX in the hymnal section of the “Nativity Ode.”  This stanza describes Apollo’s flight and the subsequent mourning of his pagan followers.  Virtually a mini-pastoral elegy, Stanza XX uses a pastoral setting as the space to both praise and grieve for the passing Apollo. Lycidas’s question—“Were it not better done as others use, / To sport with Amaryllis in the shade, / Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?” (67-69)—echoes similar anxieties in the “Nativity Ode” over losing these pagan deities.  The reference to the Amaryllis tree, from which elephants can become intoxicated, suggests a certain nostalgic pleasure of living in a pagan world ignorant to, or shaded from, the light of Christ. The speaker in “Lycidas” momentarily ponders whether or not the shepherd should ignore the Christian in favor of the pagan.  The images of intoxication and “tangles” imply that the seductive allure of the simpler, “better,” past is an illusion; rather, the pagan perpetuates ignorance and chaos. The language of this question in “Lycidas” echoes the description of the nymphs in Stanza XX of “The Nativity Ode”:  “With flow’r-inwov’n tresses torn / The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn” (186-187).  The “tangles” of transitioning from the pagan to the Christian exist in both poems.  The shepherds in “Lycidas” must not allow themselves to be caught in the seductive entrapments of the pagan world; they must use this moment to spur themselves into the Christian one.  In the “Nativity Ode,” Apollo is a central icon of the evacuation of the pagan.  The narrator in the “Nativity Ode,” like the one in “Lycidas,” names Apollo a “Genius.”  Moreover, the proximity of the word “shore” four lines earlier foreshadows the later epithet in “Lycidas,” “Genius of the shore” (183).  Through this phrase, Milton specifically links Lycidas to the Apollo of the “Nativity Ode,” suggesting that to understand Lycidas’s genius, one must also understand Lycidas’s relationship to pagan gods and Christianity. The shore, literally and symbolically, summons questions about borders and the nation that exists within those borders.

Both poems also invoke epic topoi, though “Lycidas” to a greater extent.  This suggests that the poems can be read as narratives concerning the founding of a nation, the underlying trajectory of all epics. The “Nativity Ode” initially attempts to utilize epic generic conventions, but discovers that they fail the narrator.  In the proem, the speaker echoes a traditional Muse invocation:  “Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein / Afford a present to the Infant God?” (15-16).  But this pagan Muse has “no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain” for the founder of the Christian nation.  Aware of the Muse’s failure to arrive with appropriate gifts, the narrator of “Lycidas” attempts to invoke the Muse again:  “Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well, / That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring, / Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string” (15-17).  Milton places the Sisters in an impossible position by giving a command to “begin” a poem already begun fourteen lines earlier.  Coincidentally, Milton starts both poems’s invocations on the fifteenth line, substantially deferred from their conventional location at the beginning of poems. D.M. Rosenberg suggests, “Christ becomes the epic hero of the providential history of mankind.  The Ode treats Christ as the transcendent paragon of heroic action, and the poet glorifies His virtuous deed and victory in epical tone and language.”[4] Rosenberg is correct in pointing to an epical tone in the “Nativity Ode,” but even through Christ, Milton never resolves the generic problems set up at the start of the poem.   While both poems allude to the epic tradition, their delayed and ineffectual Muse invocations suggest that, at least in the context of the founding of a Christian nation, classical epic topoi are problematic.

Milton also compares Lycidas to Orpheus, another dead hero whose body was haplessly adrift at sea.  Milton wonders: 

…for what could have that done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son
Whom Universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?  (57-63)

Orpheus is murdered and dismembered on the shores of the Hebrus, and his head floats to the island of Lesbos, where it endows the inhabitants with his immortal gift of song.  Orpheus’s own mother, Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, could not even save her son from dismemberment or direct the voyage and final destination of his severed head.  Even nature, while it can “lament” Orpheus’s tragic end, cannot affect his destiny. The common characteristic these sentinels and deities share is their ineffectualness. Milton’s frustration with classical pagan epic conventions needs a new model of epic heroism to found his nation.  In essence, Milton needs to practice a type of iconoclasm on the epic genre in order to create an epic that will best serve his English, Christian needs.

Milton turns to Spenser as a model for the type of iconoclasm he wishes to practice in recreating the epic genre.  As many critics have noted, Milton employed Spenser throughout his career.  Maureen Quilligan, in Milton’s Spenser: The Politics of Reading, convincingly argues in support of John Dryden’s claim that “Milton was the poetical son of Spenser.”  Quilligan roots these filial connections in the similar rhetoric of reading shared between Spenser and Milton:  “the process of reading which Milton defends in the Areopagitica is the very process of reading which Spenser had allegorized in The Faerie Queen.”[5]  In Areopagitica, Milton discusses the relationship between good and evil, noting that it is only through eating, or destroying, the apple that good and evil are known (728).  He then cites Spenser’s Guyon as the exemplar of one who can discern between good and evil when confronted with “the bower of earthly bliss” (729).  Stephen Greenblatt famously argues that the dismantling of the Bower of Bliss signifies “the principle of regenerative violence,” whereby the “act of tearing down is the act of fashioning.”[6]  Milton’s image of the apple rind and reference to Guyon suggests that in the process of discerning good and evil, he too thinks the reader needs to practice Spenser’s iconoclasm.  Spenser demonstrates, and Milton follows suit, that only through the rhetoric of iconoclasm will they be able to uncover the good and evil in icons.

Milton roots his iconoclasm in the “Nativity Ode” in his reading of Spenser and the Book of Revelation. Quilligan rightly observes that “small pieces of The Faerie Queene do lie about the surface of Milton’s texts” and this is especially obvious in the “Nativity Ode.”[7]  By fusing the sensibilities of Spenser with those found in Revelation, he imbues his epic not only with the force to destroy idols, but, more importantly, with the power to create new orders and paradigms.  One reason “Lycidas” alludes to the “Nativity Ode” is so that it can borrow the energy from the “Nativity Ode’s” apocalyptic iconoclasm.  The Book of Revelation figures prominently in the “Nativity Ode” as emphasis of the apocalyptic upheaval and reconstitution caused by the transition from a pagan world to a Christian world.  Milton’s allusions to Revelation frequently look like allusions to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book I.  More often than not, in the context of the “Nativity Ode,” separating out references from Revelation and Book I becomes impossible.  This “tangling” of allusions forces the reader to think about the two simultaneously and wonder why these texts are essential for understanding the images of apocalypse in Milton’s poem.

The first substantial double reference occurs in Stanza II of the hymn, when the narrator explains how nature:


... 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. (37-44)

This passage interweaves Revelation with the image of Duessa from The Faerie Queene.  In Revelation, the letter to the seventh church states, “Therefore I counsel you to buy…white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen” (iii.18).  Nature’s “white garments” that hide her “naked shame” is the snow.  Nature’s “foul deformities” allude to Duessa after her stripping, when Arthur and the Red Crosse Knight see the monstrous shape under her clothes:  “Which when the knights beheld, amazd they were, / And wondered at so fowle deformed wight” (I.viii.49). [8]  Duessa responds similarly to Nature’s desire in the “Nativity Ode” to “hide” the “naked shame” of her “foul deformities.” Just as Duessa tries to hide “from heauens hated face” (I.ix.50), so does Nature in the “Nativity Ode” try to hide from “her Maker’s eyes.” For Spenser, Duessa is the icon of popery that interferes with the Red Crosse Knight’s founding of the true church—the Church of England.  Stripping Duessa separates the good and evil religious images as any act of iconoclasm will do.  Therefore, by combining Revelation with The Faerie Queene, Milton fuses iconoclasm to his version of apocalypse.

Also central to Revelation and The Faerie Queene, Book I is the image of the dragon.  Milton further interweaves these two texts when he references a dragon in Stanza XVIII of “The Nativity Ode”: 



... for from this happy day


Th'old Dragon under ground,


In straiter limits bound,



Not half so casts his usurped sway,


And wroth to see his Kingdom fail,


Swinges the scaly Horror of his folded tail. (167-172)

The image of the dragon’s “folded tail” alludes to the Dragon in The Faerie Queene that has a  “huge long tayle wound vp in hundred foldes” (I.xi.11).  This emphasis on the tail reinforces Spenser’s previous warning:  “God Helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine” (I.i.18).   Red Crosse Knight finally battles the dragon in a scene that echoes the fight in Revelation, especially the moment when he defeats the dragon. In Revelation, “the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth” (Rev. xii.8-9). In The Faerie Queene, the defeat of the dragon marks the Red Crosse Knight’s last trial before he becomes St. George, the patron saint of England.  Richard Mallette rightly suggests that “Redcrosse’s victory is the nation’s and the national church’s.  To slay the dragon is to slay the Beast threatening from abroad.”[9]  While Milton’s allusion to the dragon in Revelation is not necessarily a nationalistic gesture, he does leave space for the nation by infusing his reference to Revelation with the Spenserian dragon. Because the dragon in The Faerie Queene dies in combat and the one in Revelation does not, Milton also borrows Spenser’s iconoclasm. The destruction of the dragon is the defeat of another major icon—the icon of Satan , “the deceiver of the world.” Milton’s use of iconoclasm smashes the evil idols that interfere with the formation of the national religion he claims to “fortell” in “Lycidas.” 

“Lycidas” links to the “Nativity Ode’s” simultaneous references to the Revelation and The Faerie Queene dragons through the figure of Michael because Michael is the angel who leads the fight against the dragon in Revelation.  In light of Revelation, there are ominous undertones around this image of Michael, the patron of mariners, who is keeping post on England’s shore.  The Faerie Queene also acknowledges this portentous side to the defeat of the dragon through Neptune; towards the end of this passage devoted to describing the dragon’s fall after it is killed, Spenser seems to mention arbitrarily that “great Neptune doth dismay.” Neptune’s “dismay” stems from the fact that the defeat of the dragon symbolizes the coming apocalypse, when “the first heaven and the first earth [pass] away, and the sea [is] no more” (Rev. xxi, 1).  Neptune’s kingdom no longer will exist after the apocalypse; this disappearance of the sea becomes a pressing issue for Milton, whose epic hero is lost at sea.

Milton is worried about the location of the shore upon which King’s “gory visage” will land.  As the potential epic hero for England, the shore he washes up on, according to epic conventions, will be the locale for the new nation. Precisely because Milton cannot depend on the pagan deities of classical epic to deliver King’s body to England, Milton turns to a Christian angel, the patron of mariners, to protect England’s shores. Michael, then, enters at the climax of “Lycidas” as he stands on St. Michael’s Mount:  “Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old, / Where the great vision of the guarded Mount / Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold; / Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth” (160-163). More than just to protect from this vantage point, Milton wants Michael to “melt with ruth,” to become liquid compassion and flow into the sea.  This fusion with the water allows for the turn in the poem where Milton can order that the “Shepherds weep no more / for Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, / Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor” (165-167). Michael’s melted ruth immortalizes Lycidas’s “sorrow” so that King’s body can transcend “the wat’ry floor” and find its way to land.  In fact, Lycidas changes places with Michael, “the guarded Mount,” for now it is Lycidas who is “mounted high” (172).  Milton, by fusing together Michael and Edward King through sorrow and compassion, transforms King’s body so that it ultimately lands on England’s shores.  Because the apocalypse threatens to isolate forever King from England, Milton must rewrite the epic tradition to save his nation’s epic hero.  In essence, Milton practices Spenserian iconoclasm to break down the old epic genre and establish a new form, one from which a renewed English nation and national religion can emerge.

With Edward King reunited with England, he takes Michael’s place as guardian of the English boundaries. By melting the two figures together, Milton creates what Lawrence Lipking describes as an “effortless combination of Christian angel with pagan genius [and] pours balm on troubled waters.”[10]   Because Michael is substituted with King, this new guardian is both a representative of Christianity and of England.  Milton thus declares, “Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore, / In thy large recompense, and shalt be good / To all that wander in that perilous flood” (183-185). Edward King, then, is this figure of Revelation who now watches over the shore of England. With England’s apocalyptic civil war drawing to a close in 1645, Milton has a newly found prophetic hope for the new England that will arise from the old. Lipking rightly notes that “the spirit who guards the coast will cast a long shadow of British influence across the Irish Sea.”[11]  Milton places the spirit of Edward King on England’s shore in a similar position to St. Michael’s to symbolize England’s political and religious renewal.

Milton’s 1645 Poems begin and end with the “Nativity Ode” and “Lycidas,” placing them in prominent and complementary positions.  This complementarity does not end with organization, but carries into how the two poems speak to one another.  Milton establishes in the “Nativity Ode” a concern for the limits of conventional epic topoi in founding a Christian nation.  He also uses this poem to work out his relationship to Spenserian iconoclasm and its relationship to apocalypse.  Through his allusions in “Lycidas” to the “Nativity Ode,” Milton continues to address similar concerns around the epic genre and finally turns Spenserian iconoclasm onto it.  The effect of this iconoclasm is that “Lycidas” reforms the epic genre in relationship to the apocalypse and produces a new epic hero, Edward King, who, just as Milton “fortells,” founds the new Jerusalem, post-civil war England.


[1]All Milton quotations are taken from John Milton Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed.  Merritt Y. Hughes (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1957).

[2] Stella P. Revard, Milton and the Tangles of Neaera’s Hair:  The Making of the 1645 Poems (Columbia and London:  U of Missouri P, 1997) 204.

[3] See Revard’s definition of monody:  “A monody, I hasten to say, as the Renaissance critics J.C.  Scaliger and George Puttenham agree, is simply an ode for a single rather than choral voice” (165, n10).

[4] D.M. Rosenberg, Oaten Reeds and Trumpets:  Pastoral and Epic in Virgil, Spenser, and Milton (Lewisburg:  Bucknell UP, 1981) 141.

[5] Maureen Quilligan, Milton’s Spenser:  The Politics of Reading (Ithaca and London:  Cornell UP, 1983) 48.

[6] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning:  From More to Shakespeare (Chicago:  U of Chicage P, 1980) 230.

[7] Quilligan 22.

[8] All Spenser quotations are taken from Edmund Spenser:  The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (London and New York:  Longman, 1977).

[9] Richard Mallette, Spenser and the Discourses of Reformation England (Lincoln and London:  U of Nebraska P, 1997) 48.

[10] Lawrence Lipking, “The Genius of the Shore:  Lycidas, Adamastor, and the Poetics of Nationalism,” PMLA 111.2 (March 1996): 213.

[11] Lipking 205.

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