The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Milton’s Sonnet XXIII, which begins “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet—with a rhyme scheme of abbaabba cdcdcd—that offers an autobiographical dream vision of the poet’s imagined reunion with his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he married on November 12, 1656. Woodcock died on February 3, 1658, not quite four months after giving birth to a daughter, Katherine, who survived her mother by only one month. Most scholars posit Katherine Woodcock as the subject of Milton’s dream in this poem, but some believe that the sonnet memorializes Milton’s first wife, Mary Powell, who died on May 5, 1652—three days after giving birth to a daughter, Deborah—while others argue that the poem commemorates both wives.

Critics have also held the opinion that Sonnet XXIII is not an autobiographical poem, but an idealistic work that traces a movement from pagan legend to Christian doctrine, thereby enacting a drama of the poet’s personal salvation. Although the sonnet’s ambiguity permits all these possible readings, the strongest evidence in the poem supports interpretations of Katherine as the subject of Milton’s dream about a wished-for reunion with his “late espoused saint” as one who was “washed from spot of childbed taint.” While both Mary and Katherine died after giving birth, only Katherine lived until the end of the period of purification according to “the old Law” of Leviticus 12:2-8.

Sonnet XXIII confronts not only these losses of...

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Sonnet XXIII Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Sonnet XXIII Milton shapes the Petrarchan form through the use of two key poetic devices: simile and conceit. Milton’s dream-as-poem offers six distinct visions of Katherine, each signaled by a simile, which together shape four possible scenarios for her imagined return: the first theme informed by a classical legend; the second, by Hebraic law; the third, by Christian faith; and the fourth, by secular humanism. In the first simile Katherine is compared to Alcestis, who, after giving her life to save her husband, Admetus, was rescued from the underworld by Hercules (“Jove’s great son”): “Methought I saw my late espoused saint/ Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave.”

Katherine is next likened to a mother who, in accordance with Leviticus 12:2-8, has neither touched any sacred objects nor entered any places of worship for a period of eighty days after giving birth to a daughter: “Mine as whom washed from spot of childbed taint,/ Purification in the old Law did save.” By way of the next two similes, the sonnet then links this Old Testament condition for Katherine’s purification with New Testament principles of redemption and Christian virtue: “And such, as yet once more I trust to have/ Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,/ Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.” These classical, Hebraic, and Christian themes culminate in the following image of Katherine as one who embodies Renaissance humanist ideals of “Love,...

(The entire section is 519 words.)