[Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Wed Apr 13 14:23:27 EDT 2016


That’s very good!  I’d add two things:

1)      I think the elided syllable could be the second one in “purification” instead, which might not have pleased Johnson, but allows for a somewhat less complex metrical reading of the line [/x/xx//x/]—although I actually prefer the rhythm of the line without elision.  And maybe Milton intended the irregularity in number?

2)      You are right that Johnson probably did not like the long syntactic tangle, and I imagine he also did not like the way it delays the predicate until after the end of the octave violating a structural expectation.  The end-stopped line break at “restraint” is brilliant to my ears, however, because of the way it both fulfills the restraint of the form on the level of the rhyme and also marks the moment at which Milton’s syntax pushes past it (ending one part of the sentence only to be followed immediately by the bigger syntactic ending introduced in the next line—and right on that first syllable).  And I like the way the twists and stretching in the syntax lends energy to the ricocheting in time, from the remembered moment of the dream, back to the biblical past, and then headlong forward into a hoped for Christian afterlife, before then returning to the night and the bedroom.  When he finally gets back to the dream at “came,” the imagined spouse is imbued with all of that history, theological and typological resonance, and longing.


Louis Schwartz
Professor of English
Chair, English Department
University of Richmond
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA  23173
Office:  Ryland Hall 308
Phone:  (804) 289-8315
Email:  lschwart at richmond.edu<mailto:lschwart at richmond.edu>

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Michael Gillum
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2016 1:53 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

I wonder why Sam Johnson judged Sonnet 23 “a poor sonnet.” Maybe it was the tangled syntax of this part:

Mine as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint, [ 5 ]
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:

Is the following a correct parsing?

 The subject and predicate of the main clause are “Mine [my wife, not Alcestis] . . . Came vested all in white . . . ,” with the predicate turning up five lines after the subject. A pronoun must be implied: “as [one] whom.” Grammatically, “washt from spot of child-bed taint “ is parenthetical, with “washt” as a participle, not a predicate, and modifying “whom” or the implied “one.” The relative clause is then “whom . . . Purification in the Old Law did save.” Rearranged, then, “Mine, as [one] whom purification in the Old Law did save, washt  from spot of child-bed taint . . . came vested all in white.” “As” in line 5 seems to be a preposition rather than a conjunction, and seems to mean “like,” although Milton normally maintains the like-as distinction. Is there another way to read “as” here? In line 7, “as” is a conjunction subordinating an adjective clause that extends the periodic suspension between subject and verb.

Here is another “as whom” with implied pronoun (“they”): “in bulk as huge /
As whom the fables name of monstrous size.” But “as huge as” is a different situation.

In line 6, “the Old” must be metrically elided to prevent a triple offbeat. I’m sure Milton intended “th’Old.” Even so, it is excessively complex by Johnson’s standards, with a falling inversion followed by a rising inversion that includes an elision (/xx/xx//x/).


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