Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Milton’s careful attention to this balance between poetic form and poetic devices in Sonnet XXIII illustrates his chief concern with merging the Greek notion of poetry as poiein (“to make or craft”) with the Roman idea of the poet as vates (a priest or diviner). Just as this elegiac poem works within the metrical conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet in order to make (poiein) a perfect pattern, the poem’s similes and central conceit underscore the poet’s experience as a visionary (vates)—an artist, that is, who can not only craft a good poem, but who can use poetic form as a vehicle for revealing sacred truths. In nearly all of Milton’s writings (prose and verse alike) this tension between poetic making and divining reveals a larger cultural and philosophical conflict about the poet’s social responsibility that was much debated in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Was the poet a rhetorician (in the tradition of Cicero) or a religious visionary (in the tradition of St. Augustine)?

As a record of Milton’s dream, or fancied sight, Sonnet XXIII places the poet in both of those roles through the work’s subtle fusion of classical legends, Hebrew and Christian doctrines, and humanist ideals that culminates in a private vision of his beloved’s spiritual perfection. However, of all the themes working within this sonnet that explore the poet’s competing roles as orator and diviner, the most...

(The entire section is 458 words.)