Spitzer’s article is refreshing because most of the previous scholarly work on “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint,” especially in the past two centuries, have focused on the question of who the actual ‘late espousèd saint’ is. Critics do agree that the subject of Milton’s last sonnet is one of his two wives (he had three), Mary Powell or Katherine Woodcock. When it comes to the identity of the saint, I prefer the argument that favors Katherine Woodcock because — to use Ockham’s razor — firstly, she is the simple and uncomplicated solution to the problem of the saint’s identity which has gone unchallenged for three hundred years according to Huntley until W.R. Parker came along and posited Mary Powell as a more likely candidate (Huntley 468-49). (1)
And secondly, it is true that Milton never saw Katherine’s Woodcock’s face because he was already blind when he married her. In the poem she wears a veil but the speaker still recognizes her, hinting at the known fact that when a blind people dream of a person they know but have never seen with their own eyes, they see them as veiled or faceless, so it makes sense that Milton would be referring to Katherine in the poem. (2)
The third reason is that Katherine Woodcock died after the spot of “child-bed taint,” mentioned in the poem, the Hebrew law prescripted in Leviticus that a woman must be ritually purified seven days after childbirth. Where one stands on the argument of identity puts one on one side of an academic battle line, so I figure I must take a stand even though this is not the primary issue given attention in this essay. I think there is a need to know the identity of the saint, not because it would solve an enigma in English literature, but because it reveals the desire in human eros to touch the object of our desire, to reach out with the fingers, “to reach out and touch faith,” to quote Depeche Mode.
Because, here, I am not interested in the historical identity of the saint, necessarily, I will tend to take the more post-Spitzerian approach to the sonnet as a piece that stands on its own two legs and is textually satisfying in its own well-tempered Petrarchan form. (3) Anyone who studies Milton should know that the number of secondary sources on the poet is overwhelming, so the number of articles that surround the saint should come as no surprise — and this does not include mentions in biographies of Milton and criticisms on other works that may mention the sonnet in passing or as a comparison. Still, there are a surprising number of essays dedicated to the subject of who the saint is and if you sweep all those aside, you still have a healthy stack of articles that deal with Spitzer’s observations on the poem and other scholars who have approached the poem from other perspectives and vantage points, which is still surprising considering that the sonnet is 14 lines and 119 words long. (4)
Like Spitzer and Wheeler, I think the poem is more about love and love-lost than an actual person — while, at the same time, I grant that Milton was probably thinking about one of his wives when he wrote the poem. I think the poem — at its heart — is more about the image of eros, erotic love, the poignant pathos thorned by loss and regret, and the myriad ways — healthy and unhealthy — we attempt to recapture that lost image of love.
Milton, unlike Shakespeare, is rarely discussed as “sexy” or “erotic” because usually, the restraints of Puritanism prevented him from openly discussing sex and sexuality. I do agree that Shakespeare is more openly sensual in his sonnets than Milton is, and even though Shakespeare beats out Milton in the sheer number of pages of poetry that he has written, one cannot dismiss Milton as an inferior poet or as a sexy poet just because he is labeled as a Puritan writer thus ipso facto fixated on sin and Satan. These stereotypical labels often attached to Milton preclude him from being interpreted as a sensual, erotic poet not bound up by whatever taboos we wish to impose on him. Even though he wrote his Christian Doctrine at the same time as the sonnet he also wrote a blank verse poem about Adam and Eve that is very similar to Sonnet 23, especially in the way it ends: “She disappear’d, and left me dark, I wak’d” (Schwartz 99). In an essay on the erotic (but not necessarily sexual) relationship between Milton and Charles Diodati, John P. Rumrich translates eros-filled passages from their letters to one another (130, 132, 134). Milton openly wrote about sex in his treatise on divorce, talking about the burning need for a husband and wife to be stimulated by good conversation. And “Comus” is filled with sexual metaphor and imagery, and in Paradise Lost — you get the idea.
Milton has no problem with sex as long as it is expressed within the bond of marriage and peppered with good conversation between a man and wife; he even posited that sex existed before the fall and that man’s disobedience, unfortunately, introduced lust, which has spoiled sex ever since (see his Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce for more).
And in the Areopagitica Milton writes about the parable of the wheat and the darnel in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks about the need for the wheat to grow alongside the weeds, how good and evil are intimately bound together, and the truly human struggle to wrestle with both to come out alive, to know by experience what is the better choice. Milton thought it was better to confront temptation rather than escape it. For, in the end, the good always triumphs — for if we really believe in the goodness of God, then we should not be dismayed by the presence of evil. So it is important to understand this about Milton to fully appreciate the struggle of eros, erotic love, and the loss of love (and the ways we attempt to achieve lost love) played out in the last sonnet.
But of course, eros in the poem is not necessarily privileged; the eroticism of his poetry is implicit and begs someone to tug at a loose string from the text and pull and pull, like a stray yarn on a sweater, to find out what is hidden beneath Milton’s Puritan desire, to uncover the struggle inherent in the text of the poem, the struggle interweaved like good and evil. It could be said, ‘Obviously, his twenty-third sonnet is about what the Greeks called eros (eros, erotic love), no matter if you tug at a stray string or not — because the poem is about conjugal love between a man and woman, someone who has shared the beauty of intimacy in life and has born the speaker a biological child.’ However the apparent eroticism of the poem is not the physical sex life of the couple while she was alive, but the erotic yearnings in the poem that ring a hollow gong because the beloved is gone. The saint is dead. The question is, how has the eroticism of their life together been dissolved by her death to remain only as a dream — an image that easily escapes the poet in the last lines of the poem, at the first break of day in the morning when the saint flees, bringing back a psychological night once again? Honigman notes the neat reversal in the poem, noting that the poem begins with an emergence from darkness and closes with a return to darkness and back to daylight (45). The poem is very much about the consciousness of the blind dreamer enraptured by the image of his dead wife (Hall 107). To what extent will a person go to recapture the image of the beloved? There is a limit to how far desire can go, how fervently a person can yearn before it turns into erotic fantasy. The eros of this poem verges on the pornographic and the artificial. How is this so and how far does it go?
I reprint the poem here from Honigman’s annotated collection, Milton Sonnets, before I go into a critical discussion of the sonnet.
Methought I saw my late espousèd saintWhat makes the poem most interesting is that the dead saint is depicted both as pure and tainted, as both rescu’d and fleeing, as both real and imaginary, as both veiled and seen. It is not readily apparent in the poem that the goodness, sweetness, and love perceived is completely pure and lily white. The “espousèd saint” is not exactly the Donna Angelicata of Dante nor is she the Aldonza of Quixote — although Sokol has suggested that she may be inspired by Petrarch’s Laura (142). She is an admixture of fantasy and reality, of image and person that makes for a complicated and multilayered figure in literature composed in the tightly scripted verse of a sonnet, probably written in 1655 or 1658 (Schwartz 98). What drew me first to a reading of the poem as erotic was, “Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight ...”
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
whom Jove’s great Son to her glad husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force through pale and faint.
Mine as whom washt 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:
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
The image of the woman is veiled, so the Miltonic speaker sees an image of the woman in his own “fancied sight” in the language of Renaissance English, that could mean either “delusive imagination” or “enlightening imagination” depending on the context ( Sokol 143). But because she is veiled, because there is a physical barrier between the speaker and the woman, she has a mysteriousness about her that makes her at once tantalizing and unapproachable. It is a fantasy of the woman rather than an enlightened imagination, I would argue. It is a preceived image. The veil stands as a symbol of visible obscurity, both obscuring and revealing the deepest of desires. It is a fabricated image in the mind of the poet as well as a fabric. The love seen is most likely an ideal form of love, a Platonic form that can never be reached; however, it is something else as well, something not so ideal, something veiled and shielded from view. The fantasy of the poem is the suggestion that the image of the saint will become corporeal — as reachable and touchable as it was for the speaker in life — but this is a fantasy, a chimera which we know, and the poem knows, will never come to pass. Desire is so great that it is mistaken for reality; because he loved her, he dreams about her. Even without a face she has a name, a history, and a past.
Like the bereaved man who keeps a photograph of his dead wife in his wallet, looking at it as if it will bring her back from the dead, Milton’s poem is a photograph of his “late espousèd saint” brought back like Alcestis from the grave by Hercules, “through pale and faint.” In myth, what happens when the dead are brought back from Hades?5 Can someone be “rescu’d from death”? In the Greek myths either they are lost forever, like Eurydice, or you do in fact bring them back with the help of a god or goddess but the question is, ‘who is the person brought back?’ — or should we ask — bought back? The sonnet is like the wish of Admetus to buy back his Alcestis in Euripides’s play, to get Hercules to successfully wrest her from the grave. But bought love is not the same as real love, especially when the love you want to buy has been lost. And recall that Alcestis is brought back by force, not by her own volition, as if raped like Zeus capturing the boy-shepherd Ganymede and bringing him to Mount Olympus to be his cup-bearer. If the poem is like the grieving husband looking at a photograph of his deceased wife, then the poem is also about the addictive search for an image to sate a desire and the costs we will pay despite the impossibility of the task.
Just as gods capture boys and maidens to be lovers, people pay prostitutes to love them for money; they pay for a face to replace the one they have lost. The fantasy of the sonnet verges on a pornography of love for the image of the face is not seen on the saint, reminding us that she has become an anonymous figure, someone brought back from the dead. The word pornography means “to write a prostitute” or to “buy a prostitute” (6). The image he trusts to have “without restraint” is pornographic as well as prostituted because it is not real and it is not mutual but it is also very human, rooted to a real love of a real person — a pure person filled with goodness (purity is privileged) — but since she has been profoundly lost, both physically and mentally the sonnet is asking, ‘how can I write her back?’. It is also far removed from reality, which is the feeding ground for lust, eroticism gone haywire and the stuff of pornographic imagery! The paradox of a pure, white-veiled donna angelicata//sullied, open-faced succubus is understood in the context of loving something you cannot have, so you resort to any medium that can fulfill that gross love — even temporarily. The woman of the sonnet is not the donna angelicata or the platonic form — absolutely, nor is she the sullied bride of child-bed taint either — she is neither of these extremes, but she is an image, shifting back and forth in the poem. She is an image written into a poem, condensed into desire and made into a chimera. This is not the same as interpreting the poem as intentionally pornographic, but rather, unraveling the poem to see how this has been written underneath the lines. By referring to the poem in this way it is not implying that the poet’s desire is somehow perverted or sinful, per se, but that his desire for an image of the beloved is an empty one, unable to be fully consummated; therefore, it is rife with the irrational desire to tear away the veil and rescue the dead — which may be wishes but are far from the truth. If every sonnet has a problem to be solved, then the problem of this sonnet is how to reconcile this paradox? How do you reconcile the image, veiled with the corporeal, flesh and blood presence?
The conclusion in lines 13-14 does not give an easy solution:
But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d,George McLoone acknowledges in an article in Milton Quarterly that the last two lines are sexual as well as eschatological and ecclesial (17). There is a desire for both the spirit and the flesh Every encounter is bound to be fleeing away, a return to the normal bout with night that turns into day, that reality brings, like the cave dwellers in Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic. The poet understands that the image is false, is not the real thing, but he returns to the image time and again, hoping, just once, that the image may be made real. The inhabitants of Plato’s darkened cave prefer the shadows and when a prophet comes back from the light to announce the truth the cave people kill him and continue to worship the shadows. The image of the sonnet is both the shadow world of the cave and the bright light of the external sun. The longing of the poem, the insistent desire to have “full sight of her in Heaven without restraint” is a real desire but what is exposed is just a fake as a pornographic image, a pixelated fantasy designed to fix you. There is nothing illusory about the desire in and of itself, but what happens to this desire that cannot have full sight? The wish to be free when there is only restraints only brings restraint. It is interesting the word “restraint” is used in the poem. He wants unmitigated access to her but cannot have it save through force. No matter what the desire, it cannot help itself but fall back to a written song of chains. The pornography of the poem is its insistence that desire can be written at will, as if desire itself is sufficient to raise the dead, to bring back, “goodness, sweetness and love” because it is desired without restraint. But is the sweetness the corruptible sweetness of a cherry coca-cola or a one-night stand? Is the goodness good or only make-believe? This makes it an image of desire. Like any image of desire: a body of desire splayed out on a glossy page to be devoured by a raw erotic appetite can only lead to the same disappointment the turn of the sonnet concedes: “day brought back my night”. This is true with any image touted as perfect, as amenable to the needs of the appetite or any addiction for that matter: the perfect Tom Collins, the perfect high, the perfect drag of a cigarette, the perfect orgasm. Addiction searches for a fix better than the last. Mere desire, mere human desire, which falls back on itself, that relentlessly pursues the image for its mere ineluctable attraction — in a post-lapsarian world — brings about the emptiness that this poem so poignantly proclaims. In a way, the poem is a complement to sonnet CXXIX by Shakespeare, the so-called lust sonnet, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” where he says, “Before, a joy propos'd; behind a dream.” (7) The moment of the dream is bliss, the moment the pure saint dressed in heavenly white appears is certainly euphoric and buzzing — one feels the excitement in the poem but one also feels the feeling akin to addictive bliss, to an empty erotic longing that comes with unfilled, unrequited love.
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
While it can be argued that Milton is not talking about unadulterated lust but rather the conjugal love of a spouse, it can be argued that the love object of Milton is a dream; therefore, it is the same as lust because the joy Milton expresses in the poem is unattainable and the speaker knows this, knows the dream as a dream when he wakes up from sleep as a sad suffering. The poem is about the suffering felt when eros — eros how it should be felt and experienced with someone you love — is not felt and the strange human propensity to pursue this empty eros even though it is false (and we know it to be false) and bound to fail (8). It is almost as if the love expressed in Milton’s sonnet is exactly the same as lust because the beloved in the poem is no more alive than the numbness the poem ends with, “my night”.
(1.) W.R. Parker, John Shawcross, Thomas Stroup, and B. J. Sokol have argued for Powell and Fitzroy Pyle, Leo Spitzer, and Maurice Kelley have argued for Woodcock. (2) See this informative article on the subject of blind people and dreaming: Hurovitz, C., Dunn, S., Domhoff, G. W., & Fiss, H. (1999). The dreams of blind men and women: A replication and extension of previous findings. Dreaming, 9, 183-193. (3) I leave the problem to other scholars to quibble about the identity of the saint, but if you want to read more about the argument consult the selected bibliography at the end of this essay. (4) Instead of focusing on the identity of the saint, Williamson, etc. have tackled the poem emphasizing the connection to Euripides’ play Alcestis. Also interpretation of the poem emphasizing the purification rituals prescribed in Leviticus and adopted in some Christian denominations (Schwartz, . (5) The most notable stories about bringing someone back from the dead usually carries a price. e.g., the Orpheus and Eurydice story, the story of Demeter’s daughter Persephone. the story of the Chinook Indians who went to the land of the dead to bring back their wives and the Ancient Egyptian story about Isis’ attempt to bring Osiris back from the dead. Even Jesus, though he raised Lazarus from the dead, could not save him from the “sickness unto death”. (6) It comes from the Greek word "pornh," a prostitute and "grafein," to write, to scratch, to carve. I use the word, pornography in this essay based on this etymology. (7) See the book Lust: the Seven Deadly Sins by Simon Blackburn (The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press 2004) for a great interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnet CXXIX. (8) Eros is Greek not only for erotic love, or sexual love, but it is also the name of Cupid, the god of Love, called Amor in Latin. Sigmund Freud, in the 20th century, took the term eros to describe the human libido, famously linking the human sex drive to the unmitigated whim of the id. Probably this essay is more informed by Freud than anything the Greeks could have meant by the word.
Selected Bibliography on Milton’s 23rd Sonnet
Bloom, Harold. John Milton. Chelsea House Publishers. 1999.
Cheney, Patrick. Alcestis and the 'Passion for Immortality': Milton's Sonnet XXIII and Plato's Symposium. Milton Studies (MiltonS) 1983; 18: 63-76.
Fiske, Dixon. “The Theme of Purification in Milton’s Sonnet XXIII”. Milton Studies 8 (1975): 149-63.
Gregory, E. R. “Milton's Protestant Sonnet Lady: Revisions in the Donna Angelicata Tradition”. Comparative Literature Studies (CLS) 1996; 33 (3): 258-79.
R.F. Hall. “Milton’s sonnets and his contemporaries”. In The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Edited by Dennis Danielson. Cambridge University Press. 1999. 98-112.
Hall, William C. Milton and his Sonnets. Folcroft Library Editions. 1973, 1932.
Hanford, James Holly, A Milton handbook. / By James Holly Hanford... New York : F. S. Crofts & co., 1947 [c1946].
Hanford. “Milton’s Sonnets.” “The Arrangement and Dates of Milton’s Sonnets”. Modern Philology (1920-1). XVIIII. 475-83.
Hill, Elizabeth. “A Dream in the Long Valley: Some Psychological Aspects of Milton’s Last Sonnet”. Greyfriar 26 (1985): 3-13.
Honigman, E.A.J. Milton's Sonnets. St. Martin’s Press. 1966.
Huntley, John. Milton’s 23rd Sonnet. ELH. Vol. 34.4 (dec. 1967), 468-481.
Jones, Edward. Milton’s Sonnets: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900-1992.
Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1994
Le Comte, Edward. A Milton dictionary. New York : Philosophical Library, .
Le Comte, Edward. “The Veiled Face of Milton’s Wife.” Notes and Queries 199 (1954): 245-246.
Low, Anthony. “Milton’s Last Sonnet” Milton Quarterly 9 (1975):80-82.
Mazzaro, Jerome. Gaining Authority: John Milton at Sonnets. Essays in Literature (ELWIU) 1988 Spring; 15 (1): 3-12.
Milton, John. Milton's minor poems / compiled by Tom Peete Cross ... illustrated by Marguerite Benjamin. Boston : Ginn & Co., [c1936]
Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. Prentice Hall. 1957.
----------------. Milton’s Sonnets. Edited by E.A.J. Honigman. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 1966. (see pages 44-48; pg. 66; pgs. 70; pgs 190-194).
McLoone, George H. Milton's Twenty-Third Sonnet: Love, Death, and the Mystical Body
of the Church. Milton Quarterly (MiltonQ) 1990 Mar; 24 (1): 8-20.
Nardo, Anna K. Milton's Sonnets & the Ideal Community . University of Nebraska Press. 1979.
Naylor, David. Unity of Sight: the influence of Dreams upon Language in Shakespeare’s sonnet 43 and Milton’s sonnet 23. 1982.
Parker, William Riley. Milton's Last Sonnet. Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language (RES) 1945 July; 21 (83): 235-38.
Parker, William Riley; Pyle, Fitzroy (rejoinder). Milton's Last Sonnet Again. Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language (RES) 1951 Apr; 2 (6): 147-54.
Pritchard, R. E. Milton and Constable. Notes and Queries (N&Q) 1994 June; 41 (239) (2): 166-67.
Pyle, Fitzroy. Milton's Sonnet on His 'Late Espoused Saint'. Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language (RES) 1949 Jan; 25 (97): 57-60.
Rumrich, John P. The erotic Milton. Texas Studies in Literature & Language, Summer99, Vol. 41 Issue 2, p128, 14p
Saillens, Emile, John Milton. Les sonnets anglais et italiens de Milton. R. West. 1977, 1930.
Schuyler, Sarah. Their Ambivalent Adventures with a Mother: Freud, Milton, Sexton. Literature and Psychology (L&P) 1986; 32 (4): 11-17.
Schwartz, Louis. 'Spot of Child-Bed Taint': Seventeenth-Century Obstetrics in
Milton's Sonnet 23 and Paradise Lost 8.462-78. Milton Quarterly (MiltonQ) 1993 Oct; 27 (3): 94-106.
Sokol, B. J. Euripides' Alcestis and the 'Saint' of Milton's Reparative Twenty-Third Sonnet. SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (SEL) 1993 Winter; 33 (1): 131-47.
Spitzer, Leo. “Understanding John Milton”. Hopkins Review, IV (1951), 116-31. Reprinted in Essays on American Literature.
Stroup, Thomas B. “Aeneas’ vision of Creusa and Milton’s Twenty-Third Sonnet,” PQ, XXXIX (1960), 125-26.
Wallerstein, Nicholas. “'The Copious Matter of My Song': A Study of Theology and
Rhetoric in Milton's Paradise Lost and 23rd Sonnet”. Pacific Coast Philology (PCP) 1995; 30 (1): 42-58.
Wheeler. “Milton’s Twenty-Third Sonnet”. SP. 58,.3. 1961. 510-15, 511 + 514.
Williamson, Marilyn L. “A Reading of Milton’s Twenty-Third Sonnet”. Milton Studies 4 (1972): 141-49.