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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)