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 poignant is that of the relationship between physical (or external) blindness and spiritual (or inward) vision. The poem announces this particular thematic tension from the very first line—“Methought I saw my late espoused saint”—and articulates the substance of that conflict until the very last line, when the dream vision is broken: “I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
Whereas the poem’s first three scenarios for Katherine’s imagined recovery offer positive consolation for the poet’s confrontation with loss, the sonnet’s final glimpse here of the disappearing beloved presents a more complex solution that paradoxically achieves a diminished solace through resistance to consolation. Although Katherine flees as Milton wakes from dreaming, his reversion to physical, external blindness—“day brought back my night”—suggests both a qualification of consolation as well as an open, diurnal movement toward his ongoing remediation of loss by which new apprehensions of the beloved may appear “yet once more” when the poet returns—through dreams—to spiritual, internal sight. Though fleeting and veiled, dreams embody redemptive power for Milton and serve as bridges between the secular and sacred realms. The sonnet’s final and transitory image of Katherine foretells of Milton’s “Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,” thus infusing personal vision with religious significance.