The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

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.

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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 interpersonal relationship but also the poet’s own loss of the faculty of sight. Milton was totally blind at the time of his marriage to Katherine. His dream of her, which is the sonnet’s main subject, momentarily allows the poet what had been denied but so strongly desired in life: full sight of his beloved’s face. The work’s first twelve lines present five different apparitions of Katherine and three corresponding conditions for her possible return from death, all underscored by Milton’s conviction “yet once moreto have/ Full sight of her in heaven without restraint.” However, the sonnet’s concluding two lines, which shape a sixth vision of and fourth possibility for recovering the beloved, qualify the poem’s scenarios for reunion through the bittersweet image of Katherine who, upon reaching to embrace the dreaming poet, wakes Milton from his vision of “Love, sweetness, goodness in her person,” thereby hastening her own disappearance: “But O as to embrace me she inclined/ I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.”

In keeping with the conventions of most English poetic elegies written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Milton’s elegiac sonnet crafts relationships between three fundamental components of the mourning process: lamentation, praise, and consolation. Each of the poem’s imagined reunions with the beloved intertwines expressions of sorrow, love, and solace—though not necessarily in that strict order—thus achieving at each step a synthesis of those three emotional and rhetorical dimensions of grief. For example, in the fourth of these visions (lines 9-11) the poet fancies seeing his beloved once more in heaven, where she will appear “vested all in white, pure as her mind.” This articulation of praise and love for Katherine’s virtue quickly incorporates a qualification for their potential meeting in heaven—“Her face was veiled”—which implies lamentation and Milton’s sorrow for his physical blindness during their life together. Although emotionally ambivalent and rhetorically ambiguous, this semblance of the beloved as both luminous and shrouded hinges upon the consolation that the faculty of imagination may permit the poet to see beyond the veil: “yet to my fancied sight,/ Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined.” Milton’s solace at this particular moment in the sonnet thus joins together praise and lamentation through the image of Katherine’s mind.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

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, sweetness, goodness” that shine within her person “So clear, as in no face with more delight.” The poem’s final simile grounds those ideals in a tangible desire for relationship—Katherine’s imagined gesture of reaching toward the dreaming poet—that ironically disperses his vision and awakens Milton to the reality of both her absence and his own sightlessness: “But O as to embrace me she inclined/ I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.”

In each case, Milton’s similes both initiate and join together these six apparitions of Katherine that collectively determine the poem’s thematic progression from pagan lore to Old and New Testament doctrine to secular humanist principles. This rhetorical movement in turn underscores the sonnet’s central conceit that Katherine’s spirit embodies the best elements from all four cultural traditions that conclude in the poem’s image of her mind’s singular virtue: “So clear, as in no face with more delight.” The sonnet thus invests Katherine’s spirit with Protestant tenets of the soul’s indwelling grace and covenant of redemption in a characteristic gesture that distinguishes most, if not all, of Milton’s poetic works from “On Shakespeare” (1632) to Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), in which the poet places essential moral teachings from classical, Hebraic, and other cultural, literary, and religious traditions in the service of Protestant reform and secular humanist ideology. Since that conceit is such a driving force in this sonnet, Milton elides the poem’s syntactical division between octave (abbaabba) and sestet (cdcdcd), thereby working within Petrarchan formal conventions to achieve a fluid synthesis of Katherine’s changing semblances against the sonnet’s more predictable rhyme scheme.

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