‘Sonnet 23’, also known as ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint,’ is one of Milton’s most famous sonnets. Readers and scholars commonly believe that this piece was written after the death of Milton’s second wife, Katherine Woodcock. She died after giving birth to their daughter, who also passed away. Unfortunately for Milton, this was not the first time he lost a wife in this manner. His first wife died while giving birth to his daughter. This was part of a very dark period in Milton’s life that was only intensified by the fact that he lost his sight towards the beginning of 1652.
Explore Sonnet 23
Summary of Sonnet 23
The first octave of ‘Sonnet 23’ contains the speaker’s description of his vision. He saw his wife, in all her beauty. This did not scare him. Instead, it brought him pleasure and reminded him of Alcestis from Greek mythology. His wife appeared pure, covered in a veil, yet shining in all her normal beauty and grace. At the end of the poem, the speaker notes that he plans on seeing her face, with his full sight, once he joins her in heaven. The poem concludes with the speaker trying to embrace his wife and waking up from his dream, back into the world of darkness.
Themes in Sonnet 23
In ‘Sonnet 23,’ Milton explores themes of the afterlife, loss, and reality. The first and the last of these come together in the poem to allow the speaker to see his wife as she is now. She’s residing in Heaven, purified of any of the sins she might’ve had on earth. This is especially poignant for the speaker since she died in childbirth. It’s clear throughout ‘Sonnet 23’ that this woman’s loss has had a powerful impact on the speaker. When she disappears at the end of the poem, he describes being thrust back into darkness. That is, the speaker alludes, his primary state of being. It might be that only in dreams, in an altered state of reality, that he’s able to find momentary happiness.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 23’ by John Milton is a traditional Petrarchan sonnet that follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDCDCD. The poem is divided into one set of eight lines, known as an octave, and one set of six lines, known as a sestet. The first eight lines can also be divided into two sets of four lines, known as quatrains. Milton also makes use of another feature of Petrarchan sonnets, iambic pentameter. This refers to the metrical pattern, one that consists of five sets of two beats per line. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. This is the most common metrical pattern used throughout the history of English poetry, especially within sonnets.
Milton makes use of several literary devices in ‘Sonnet 23’. These include but are not limited to, examples of enjambment, caesurae, and alliteration. The latter is a common technique used in a variety of poems in which the poet uses and reuses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “great,” “glad,” and “gave” in the third line and “face,” and “fancied” in line ten.
Enjambment is another common device that appears when the poet cuts off a line before it comes to its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines four and five.
Caesurae is another formal device in ‘Sonnet 23’. It is concerned with the pauses that a poet puts into lines. These might be with punctuation or with the meter. For instance, “But Oh! as to embrace me, she inclin’d” and “Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight.”
Analysis of Sonnet 23
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,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 23,’ the speaker begins with the line for which the poem later became note. He notes that he thought that he saw his “late espoused saint.” This slightly archaic language refers to the speaker’s recently deceased wife. This experience is far from terrifying. In fact, the speaker rejoices over her presence. He shows his pleasure in the following lines by comparing her to a series of mythological figures. The first of these is “Alcestis.” He uses a simile to bring in this character, a woman who died for her husband, Jove/Zeus. She was later brought back from the underworld by Hercules, one of Jove’s sons.
The last line of this quatrain provides the reader with some wonderful imagery that helps one understand what it was like to see this vision. Alcestis, like his wife, is/was “pale and faint” when she returned. This is a clever way of described how ghost-like her appearance was.
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,
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 23,’ the speaker compares his deceased wife to pregnant women who, as described in the Hebrew Bible, had to be purified. The reference to “child-bed taint” is an interesting one. It is usually one of the main reasons why readers and scholars have associated this poem with Milton’s personal history. His second wife, Katherine Woodcock, died in 1658 in childbirth, as did his first wife.
He tells the reader in the seventh line that he hopes to see his wife in the future, in Heaven. He uses the phrase “Full sight” in order to describe how he wants to see her. This might reference the fact that Milton was going blind towards the end of his life, something writes about in ‘Sonnet 19’.
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 Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
When Milton sees his wife in Heaven, she’ll be all “vested…in white,” the color of purity. It is as “pure” as her mind is. Any trace of sin has been removed from the woman he loved.
In the tenth line, he goes back to the vision he saw. He describes how his wife’s face was covered in a veil. It was “veil’d” (this is an example of syncope). Despite this, he can still see her and feel her “love, sweetness, goodness.” It shined out of her clearly. This suggests that he won’t be able to see his wife’s face clearly until he gets to Heaven. There, they will be together with his sight restored. At this moment, his “fancied” or creative sight is allowing him to see past the veil.
In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker describes how his wife declined to embrace him. This forces him to wake up and acknowledge that she’d fled. The dream was over. Despite the fact that he was dreaming of this vision, with its absence, he’s thrust back into “night.” This is a beautiful way of describing the overall emotional darkness of his life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 23’ should also consider reading some of Milton’s other best-known poems. These include ‘Sonnet 19: (On His Blindness) When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ and ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ As mentioned above, the first of these is Milton’s most famous sonnet. In it, he depicts the emotional stress of losing his sight and his fear that he wouldn’t be able to continue serving God with his writing. The second poem, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ is another religious poem in which the speaker celebrates Christ’s nativity and his own entry into the adult world. Milton wrote it when he was only twenty-one years old.