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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sonnet 23 - John Milton

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
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;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.


A heartbreaking account of loss and dreams, in his Sonnet 23, Milton dreams of his dearly departed wife, who came to him in a dream vision.  Invoking both religious and Classical imagery throughout, Milton constructs his wife as a heavenly figure.

Initially, he refers to her as his "late espoused saint," firmly establishing her grace and divinity, as well as her being dead.  He saw her brought to him like Alcestis, immediately creating a Classical parallel, to lend some sort of gravitas to the poem, and to give the image of her snatched from Death's jaws.  He saw her not as impure, as of the world, but as purified in Heaven, "vested all in white, pure as her mind."  She embodies all the goods of the world, "love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd [shined] so clear."

Sadly the vision departs, which Milton communicates in great pain.  "But Oh!  as to embrace me she inclin'd [inclined], I wak'd [I waked, woke up], she fled, and day brought back my night."  The last words, "and day brought back my night" is an image with two levels of meaning.  First, the metaphorical, in that with his light (his heavenly spouse) taken from him, Milton is in the dark, despite it being day time.  The more literal, and sadder image, is that Milton, by this point in his life, had gone blind.  In his dreams, he can see, and what wonders he sees!  His most beloved wife, returned to him.  But when he awakes, it is back into a world of darkness.  Despite the classical allusions and somewhat dense imagery of the poems opening lines, the ending is very direct and emotional.  It's the kind of line, and direct sincerity and devotion, that makes me choke up a bit.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved this poem. And you're right about the starkness of that last line with its monosyllabic words and few elisions. I always compare it with the last two lines of "Lycidas." "Contrast," I should say. Glad to have found this site.

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