[lit-ideas] Miltoniana

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  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 11 Aug 2015 11:32:24 -0400

In a message dated 8/11/2015 7:05:49 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time,
lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx writes:
This is Emily Dickinson's poem.

And this is Milton's.

methought I saw my late espoused saint
brought to me like Alcestis from the grave
whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave
rescued from death by force though pale & faint
mine as whom washed from spot of child bed taint
purification in the old law did save
& 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
her face was vailed yet to my fancied sight
love sweetness goodness in her person shined
so clear as in no face with more delight
but o as to embrace me she enclined
I waked she fled & day brought back my night

Milton introduces the subject of the poem. This one's all about a vision
he had of his dead wife. The repetition of words referring to the speaker—
"me," "I," "my, "to me"—tells us that the subject of this piece isn't just
this vision of a dead woman, but the Milton's PERSONAL OWN EXPERIENCE of that

The phrase "late espoused saint," has two possible implicatures:

It might mean "the good, pious woman I married who is now 'late,' or

But it could also mean, "the good, pious saint (a person now in heaven) I
lately espoused (recently married)."

This latter impilcature makes the situation even more tragic, since Milton
has lost a wife very early in their marriage.

So we know right off the bat that this piee is not a happy one.

Milton's referring to his wife as a "saint" tells us one thing for sure:
Milton comes from a Christian world view. He thinks of his wife in this
context of heaven and salvation.

The poem uses enjambment to introduce the idea that the vision of the
saint doesn't just appear to Milton, but is actually "brought" to him by
someone or something.

You might expect a vision to just appear, but this one's brought.

The use of the verb "brought" to describe Milton's vision IMPLICATES two

Milton's playing a passive role in this whole shebang.

He's just sitting there when his wife is brought to him.

Which brings us to his second implicature: his wife's pretty passive, too.

She's simply being carried along by whatever it is that's conjuring her up
before Milton.

The first line has syllables, and seems to (generally) follow a daDUM
daDUM rhythm.

You know what that means. iambic pentameter.

Milton brilliantly goes on to compare his late espoused saint to Alcestis
in a simile.

For those not in the know, Alcestis was a character in Graeco-Roman
mythology (there's loads of Italian 'melodramas' about the story) who died in
husband's place and was brought back from the underworld by Ercole, son of

So what's a pagan allusion doing in a poem about a saint?

Well, Plato's Symposium, an important work of classical philosophy with
which Milton was familiar, refers to Alcestis's decision to die for her
husband as an example of the highest form of love.

So basically, Milton is implicating that his dead wife may have somehow
sacrificed herself for him.

Saying that his wife has come "from the grave" contrasts quite a bit with
the description of her as a "saint" in the first line.

Saints live on in heaven, but only dead, lifeless bodies come "from the

It seems like our poor speaker is struggling with two different ideas
about what happens to people after death.

Just as the vision of the speaker's wife is "brought" to him, here
Alcestis is brought to her husband by Ercole.

In both cases, the woman is a totally passive object, a gift of sorts.

This contains a lot more accented syllables in a row than we normally
expect in a line of iambic pentameter, giving this line a "heavy" or stressed

But doesn't that make perfect sense?

After all, there's some heavy stuff going on, what with Jove's gift of
Alcestis to her husband.

Continuing the comparison of his late wife to Alcestis, Milton describes
this mythical Graeco-Roman heroine as "rescued from death by force," telling
us that he considers his vision of his wife to be a similar kind of rescue—
a resurrection of sorts.

Despite her rescue from death, Alcestis is pale and faint, just as a
vision of a dead person might seem.

She is, technically speaking, a ghost after all.

Here's a fun little metrical side note.

On the first foot of this line, the accent occurs on the first syllable
instead of on the second as we normally expect in iambic pentameter. In other
words, it sounds like DAdum, instead of daDUM.

This placement puts the emphasis on the rescue as the most important part
of the line, like a big ol' red flag.

And when a foot is flipped like that—when an iamb gets all turned around —
we call it a "trochee" instead.

One more note on form before we're on our merry way.

This line ends with the word "faint," which just so happens to rhyme with

And "gave" and "grave" rhyme, too.

That means we've got a rhyme scheme of ABBA -- providing an answer to Helen
Hennessy-Vendler's idea that a piece of poeetry 'is a thing that scans and

And since this poem is written in iambic pentameter, and we know it's
fourteen lines long, we can go ahead and assume that Milton's a PETRARCHAN
sonnet. Nifty.

Now Milton compares his dead wife as she appears in the vision to women of
the Hebrew Bible, or Leviticus 12, to be precise.

Back then, child birth was considered unclean, so women had to undergo
purification rituals.

So this simile puts us squarely back in a Judeo-Christian context, rather
than the previously (my favourite) Graeco-Roman one -- because it's a
biblical allusion.

Sure, his wife is like Alcestis, but she's also like these other women,

Milton is reffering to his second wife: Katherine Woodcock, who died in
childbirth after less than a year of marriage.

Often, they'll cite Milton's reference to "child-bed taint" as proof to
back up their claims.

Although the reference to the "spot of child-bed taint" may literally refer
to the childbed of Milton's wife, it's also, more generally a common
symbol for sin.

And that makes sense, when you add the word "purification" to the mix.

That purification might represent a Christian forgiveness for sins.

Next Milton describes Katherine Woodcock Milton as someone he hopes to see
"once more."

Milton is making a connection, but also pointing to a contrast between the
wholly purified "saint" and the woman he loved and knew on earth.

His wife was once quite human, but now she's gone to heaven and has become
a saint.

Milton says that he trusts in the fact that he'll be able to see his wife
in heaven.

This isn't some dumb, foolish hope, either.

He totally *believes* it.

Milton's anticipation of the "full sight" of his wife in heaven hits close
to home for readers in the know.

Once we remember Milton was blind, we realize just how meaningful this
line is.

Milton is anticipating the fact that in heaven, his physical infirmity will
be wiped away, much like the "spot of child-bed taint" from line 5.

In other words, when he meets his wife again, he'll be purified, like her.

Moving away from the similes of lines 2-8, Milton returns in line 9 to the
actual vision of his wife, describing her as vested, or dressed, in white,
pure as her mind.

Enough with the comparisons—let's get down to the actual vision.

The colour white allegedly symbolizes Christian purity, or freedom from

That's a fitting echo of the description of the woman in the vision as one
purified of "taint."

This saint is blessed in heaven.

Of course she's decked out in white.

Milton says his wife appears dressed in white, pure as her mind.

In other words, her outer appearance perfectly matches her inner purity
--which reminds us that Milton clearly sees heaven as a place where physical
imperfections are wiped away, and where the body becomes as perfect as the

Before we get down to the nitty gritty, we need to get to the gist of
these lines.

Basically, Milton is saying that despite the fact that his wife's face is
veiled, he can still see love, sweetness, and goodness in it.

In any case, Milton still can't see her completely.

He doesn't have the "full sight" that he believes he'll have in heaven.

So we might think of this image as a sad reminder that poor Milton is still
stuck on earth, separated from his wife.

But the image also reminds us of the myth of Graeco-Roman Alcestis, who
wore a veil when she returned from the grave.

And—yes, this image is a triple threat—veiling also alludes to the idea
of the hidden meanings of Scripture.

Poets sometimes portray such meanings as being veiled until the end times,
in which their full meaning will at last become fully visible to the

In this case, this might suggest that though Milton can't quite see his
wife's face now, he knows what it's saying, and he'll see it completely when
he finally gets to heaven.

In other words, despite the veil on her face, the speaker's "fancied sight"
enables him to see certain qualities in his wife that might not be all
that obvious to the average Joseph.

Why can't the average Joseph see those qualities?

Well, probably because he's using his "fancied sight."

In other words, he's seeing these things in his imagination—not in reality.

Remember, Milton is not actually seeing his wife in any real way.

He's using his imagination.

It's in keeping with this imaginative vision, then, that the qualities he
can see in his wife aren't physical attributes, but interior ones—love,
sweetness, and goodness.

Those aren't things you can see with your actual eyes, anyway, so of course
he'd have to use his fancied sight.

Love, sweetness, and goodness "shine" in her person, like some sort of
light radiating out of her body.

Of course using light imagery to describe spiritual perfection is common in
Christian culture.

The focus of Milton's poem ion sight and vision make it even more

The shininess of his wife's virtues actually helps the speaker to see her
more clearly.

How convenient.

In fact, the brightness of his wife's spiritual qualities provides so much
clarity for Milton that he describes them as "so clear as in no face with
more delight."

With "as in no face with more delight," the speaker indicates that being
able to see the spiritual qualities of the "person" is more valuable than
being able to see their actual physical features.

Sure, Milton may have been blind, but he could still *see* (figuratively) a
great deal.

We come to it at last: the final two lines of the poem. And, do they pack a

Milton's long lost lady love-turned-vision leans down to give her man a

And then—oops!—he wakes up, just in time to ruin everything, as the vision

If you think about it, the wife's attempt to embrace Milton is her first
real *activity* in the poem.

The rest of the time, she's just been standing there, all passive-like.

That means it's probably a good idea to really dig into this image, to see
what we can make of it.

Here goes.

First, saying that Katherine Woodcock Milton "inclined" to embrace him
means that she's positioned above Milton.

Maybe Milton is being literal (rather than 'figurative'') here, saying that
his wife is standing over his prone, sleeping body.

But he could also be being figurative here, because she exists on a higher
spiritual plane than he does.

The lady's in heaven, after all.

Whatever the case may be, when she leans down to him, our speaker wakes
up, which drives the point home that she was never really there in the first

The moment he wakes up, she flees.

Or rather, the vision of her goes poof.

And as she flees, the sunshine and happiness she brought with her goes up
in smoke, too.

It's night again, and our speaker is forced to remember that his wife is
very, very gone.

One possible interpretation of these lines is that once the husband and
wife try to embrace, it's all getting a bit too real.

In other words, the vision is trying to move out of the spiritual realm and
into the physical one, which is impossible, so it dissolves.

Before we wrap things up, though, let's take a closer look at line 14.

It's a paradox, because day actually brings about night.

Weird, right?

In any case, that paradox reminds us that night can be a time of darkness
and sorrow, while day is a time of hope and joy.

Because Milton was blind, "day brought back my night" also has a literal
sense: day brings back the "night," or darkness, of his blindness.

To make a long story short, this poem ends on a bit of a sad note.

Okay: a huge honking sad note.

The vision's gone, and Milton is on his own again, left to mourn his
saintly wife who's gone and ditched him for heaven.


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