[Milton-L] chilly first line, awkwardness or asprezza, and Sidney's possible influence on "Methought I saw"

John K Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Fri Apr 15 13:42:04 EDT 2016


Three comments. I'll try to be brief.
1) Michael, when you say you find the diction of the sonnet's opening line "chilly", is is because of "late" (in the formal sense "recently deceased")? That sense did exist and probably is present here, but I always hear "late espoused" in the other sense "recently" with overtones of "too late" (this would of course point to Katherine, not Mary, as the poem's subject). To my ears, "late" is full of poignant yearning as in Adam's mournful lines: "his happiest choice too late / Shall meet" (PL 10.904-5). The case is different here in that Katherine is not already married to someone else, but she was Milton's "happiest choice" and he met too late and enjoyed her too briefly to achieve full happiness in this life. The formal sense of "late" is no doubt present too, but the sense of being tardy (no timely-happy spirit, he) warms what would otherwise be coolly formal diction.


2) On awkwardness and the question of whether we are just inventing excuses for it, it is worth remembering that asprezza (harshness of sound and difficulty of sense) was an admired feature in Italian sonnets, and one that Milton sought. "A book was writ of late" is full of deliberately harsh diction and knotty syntax. (I have written about this in an essay on Milton's sonnets in the The Oxford Handbook of Milton)


3) Sonnets about dreams are not at all uncommon (Shakespeare and Sidney both wrote them) and one that might well have influenced the sonnet we are now discussing is Astrophil and Stella 38:


This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines, but sings.
I start, look, hark; but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in opened sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.
I, seeing better sights in sight’s decay,
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.


The phrase "sight's decay" would have a special resonance for blind Milton of course, but the clincher for me is "I start, look, hark" which I suspect suggested the triple hammer blows of "Love, sweetness, goodness" and "I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night". 


John Leonard

On 04/15/16, "Richard A. Strier"  <rastrier at uchicago.edu> wrote:
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> Yes, I'm afraid that we are, again, in perfect agreement. That poem has the visionary aspect, which is crucial. "Whoso list" doesn't.
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 11:52 AM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
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> I agree completely. Wyatt’s greater contribution to this line of poems is, I think, “They Flee from me.” 
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> Email: lschwart at richmond.edu <lschwart at richmond.edu>
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu]
> On Behalf Of Richard A. Strier
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 12:31 PM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
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> Yes. I mentioned
> Rime 190 because I think Milton's poem is indeed related to it -- and, even more amazingly, given how great Petrarch's poem is -- worthy of comparison to it. Wyatt's sonnet based on 190 ("Whoso list to hunt") is a fine poem, but not (in my opinion) in the same league with Petrarch's -- and Milton's.
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 11:23 AM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
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> Thank you, Richard! It is a very great poem, and I think it’s not only comparable to
> Rime 190, but also related to it, or at least in a line of poems that call back to it and beyond through a long line of appearing and disappearing beloveds. I’ve argued elsewhere and at length the at Milton’s particularly painful reflection on the motif is primarily a response to Spenser’s—part of why “espoused” matters so much here.
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> Michael: you’re right, of course, about the warmth that accompanies the bookishness of the Alcestis allusion, and about the purification simile, which reflects back not just to Leviticus, but to Mary’s purification in Luke, to churching customs, which also suggest the reunion of mother and community of worship, as well as, as you note, the reunion of spouses—it’s also typologically relevant in uniting Old and New Testaments, key to the structure Spitzer long ago noticed, and for that matter it even suggests a conflation of the names of the two possible wives—if we want to read the poem biographically (Mary suggesting Mary and purification suggesting Katherine). Talk about packing a lot of information into a few syllables!
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> Louis Schwartz
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> Professor of English
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> University of Richmond
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> 28 Westhampton Way
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> Office: Ryland Hall 308
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> Phone: (804) 289-8315
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> Email: lschwart at richmond.edu <lschwart at richmond.edu>
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu>]
> On Behalf Of Richard A. Strier
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 11:58 AM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
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> Lovely work, Louis! It's a very great poem. One of the greatest sonnets in English that I think we have. Worthy of comparison with some of Petrarch's greatest, perhaps even Rime 190, (Una candida cerva). 
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 10:37 AM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
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> You're absolutely right that every line doesn't have to sing. In fact, part of what I find beautiful in this poem is the way it swings between poles of lyricism and something at least on the surface flatter and slightly strained. And you're right that the diction and the similes are oddly bookish, although I wouldn't call them "chilly." I think you're right that one way to look at it is as the representation of a strategy to contain the emotions, but I also think it's the representation of someone trying to communicate a very complex meaning that he doesn't fully grasp, and an experience that he knows was not "real" and yet he feels is full of significance (and that both makes him uneasy and full of longing). What you say about packing a lot of information into just a few syllables is precisely what I think is so artful--and peculiarly Miltonic--about the poem. A big part of the strange effect of the poem for me is the way those pedantic bits carry a straining toward meaning that has its own emotional weight, and an important part of their burden is in the allusions they make and suggest. And that straining is also, I think, reflected in the syntax and prosody. 
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> I think, also, that the emphatic stresses (and the extra ones) that Milton makes available in lines 7 and 8 provide an opportunity to recite those lines with a rising urgency that carries the energy of the long sentence into its climax at the beginning of line 9. And the energy of that rhythm carries the mounting excitement of the speaker's trust that what he saw in the dream is a figure of what he will have again at some point. Then, of course, it deflates into the sad conclusion of the poem, lifting again with the stresses on "love," "sweet-," "good," "per-," "shined," "clear," and "face" before falling though the internal rhyme on "embrace" to the dark final line with its puzzled sequence of waking and fleeing.
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu>
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> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2016 9:49 AM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness  
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> Why does every line need to "sing"? Does the topic of ritual purification call for flights of lyricism? I don't see why some irregularities of rhythm turn a sonnet "poor." Richardson delivers the line in a conversational rhythm that is not ugly, and that, I think, dimly reflects the metrical scansions offered by Leonard and me. To me, the interesting point is the way he suppresses the "as whom" that, being grammatically incoherent, is a genuine fault in the poem. 
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> The other thing I would fault is the diction in "my late espoused saint," which seems a chilly and pedantic way to characterize the lady. It put me off when I first approached the poem. If I were forced to defend the phrase, I would say that it does pack a lot of information into a few syllables, and that this language, along with the bookishness of the similes, might be seen to reflect a strategy of containing the powerful emotion that breaks out in the last several lines.
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> On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 9:48 PM, Schwartz, Louis <lschwart at richmond.edu> wrote:
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> Greg,
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> I hate to have to respond to this sort of assertion at all, but I'll simply say, with as much restraint as I can muster, that I do not perceive the line as a flaw (same with the choppiness that bothers you about "trust to have/ Full sight of her in heaven without restraint" or the whole syntactic movement from "Mine" to "mind"). If you would like to have an actual conversation about this, including my sense of the straining that is there in the lines, I'm happy to have it, but not if you're just going to suggest I'm deluded.
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> For what it's worth, I don't see the point of raising a little flag in chaos.
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> Louis Schwartz
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> lschwart at richmond.edu
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> From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
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> Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 5:31 PM
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> To: John Milton Discussion List
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> Subject: [Milton-L] awkwardness 
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> Responding to the bolded below. So, yes, listen to the lovely delivery of Ian Richardson to which Hugh Richmond directed our attention
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> http://miltonrevealed.berkeley.edu/videos/john-miltons-sonnet-xxiii-his-dead-wife-1658-ian-richardson
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> and tell me that you don't hear, amid all the beautifully conveyed rhythms of Richardson's performance, the arrhythmia in "Purification in the old law." Then look at, for example, Louis Schwartz's scansion-- [/xx/xxx//x/]--and ask whether one would ever expect to hear rhythm in any line that could be so marked. (There's a little choppiness too in "trust to have / Full sight of her in")
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> This arrythmia (and it's Milton's; Richardson has downplayed it in performance as far as it can be downplayed)
> matters because the proposed beauty of this section is the suspension established with "Mine" and only resolved with "came". There's scarcely anything more satisfying in English literature than the moment one of Milton's well-constructed suspended sentences resolves itself: "without thee is sweet." But this is not one of those. The verbal stuff over or through which a suspension moves has to be of a certain quality. Here Milton does what in PL Marvell thinks he never does: "flags," fails to keep "on wing." The idea that stuff about the wife intervenes between "Mine" and "came," delaying the "came," would make for a good poem is correct; but that notion doesn't survive an actual listen.
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> There's more to be said about the content of "Purification in the old law did save," but for now I'll take Jim as saying that he heard awkwardness here. Michael Gillum has called the line "ragged and unmusical". Michael Bryson is open to the notion that this could be described as a poor poem. No small number of embryon atoms are swarming populous around my flag (or Johnson's, however you regard it.)
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> Greg Machacek
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> Professor of English
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> Marist College
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>  -----milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu wrote: ----- 
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> To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
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> From: James Rovira 
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> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
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> Date: 04/14/2016 03:37PM
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> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] victory conditions
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> I think the discussion has been wonderfully instructive regardless of the conclusions reached... or not. 
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> I think we need to use scansion as an explanatory device to explain why the poem may (or may not) sound awkward at points when read aloud rather than starting with scansion to evaluate the poem's use meter. Scanning the poem should provide the "why" for the "what." It's at that point that we begin to hear each other's reading of the poem. 
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> On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 2:29 PM, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
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> For me to declare victory, I would have to convince a site full of Miltonists (all who weigh in; lurkers don't count one direction or the other) that "Methought I saw" is a poor sonnet. I think I've made the stakes for myself sufficiently demanding. Our era's tendency interpretively to recuperate poorly crafted verses is just a sub-issue of this larger challenge to which I've engaged myself.
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> Greg Machacek
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