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

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Fri Apr 15 14:16:09 EDT 2016


John Leonard,

By "chilly," I just meant that "late espoused saint" is a very formal and
rather distant way to characterize a beloved woman. "Saint" I take in the
Puritan sense of "saved person." I mainly think of "late" as adjective
("deceased"), but it could be adverb (either "recently" or "tardily"). As
you suggest, the last choice would carry a note of regret.

Thanks for the Sidney. Among other beauties, the description of falling
half-asleep is nicely observed.

On Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 1:42 PM, John K Leonard <jleonard at uwo.ca> wrote:

> 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:
>
> Yes, I'm afraid that we are, again, in perfect agreement.  That poem has
> the visionary aspect, which is crucial.  "Whoso list" doesn't.
>
> RS
> ------------------------------
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on
> behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 11:52 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
>
> I agree completely.  Wyatt’s greater contribution to this line of poems
> is, I think, “They Flee from me.”
>
> L.
>
> ===========================
>
> 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
>
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:
> milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] *On Behalf Of *Richard A. Strier
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 12:31 PM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
>
>
> 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.
>
> RS
> ------------------------------
>
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on
> behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 11:23 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
> 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.
>
> 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!
>
> Louis
>
> ===========================
>
> 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
>
> *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
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 11:58 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
> 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*).
>
> RS
>
> ------------------------------
>
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on
> behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 10:37 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
> 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.
>
> 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.
>
> Louis
>
> ======================
> Louis Schwartz
> Professor of English
> Chair, Department of English
>
> University of Richmond
> Richmond, VA  23173
> (804) 289-8315
> lschwart at richmond.edu
> ------------------------------
>
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on
> behalf of Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu>
> *Sent:* Friday, April 15, 2016 9:49 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
> 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.
>
> 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.
>
> On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 9:48 PM, Schwartz, Louis <lschwart at richmond.edu>
> wrote:
>
> Greg,
>
> 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.
>
>>
> For what it's worth, I don't see the point of raising a little flag in
> chaos.
>
> Louis
>
> ======================
> Louis Schwartz
> Professor of English
> Chair, Department of English
>
> University of Richmond
> Richmond, VA  23173
> (804) 289-8315
> lschwart at richmond.edu
> ------------------------------
>
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on
> behalf of Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
> *Sent:* Thursday, April 14, 2016 5:31 PM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* [Milton-L] awkwardness
>
> Responding to the bolded below.  So, yes, listen to the lovely delivery of
> Ian Richardson to which Hugh Richmond directed our attention
>
>
> http://miltonrevealed.berkeley.edu/videos/john-miltons-sonnet-xxiii-his-dead-wife-1658-ian-richardson
>
> 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")
>
> 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.
>
> 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.)
>
>
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
>
>
>
> -----milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu wrote: -----
>
> To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> From: James Rovira
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
> Date: 04/14/2016 03:37PM
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] victory conditions
>
> I think the discussion has been wonderfully instructive regardless of the
> conclusions reached... or not.
>
> *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.
>
> Jim R
>
> On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 2:29 PM, Gregory Machacek <
> Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
>
> 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.
>
>
>
>
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
>
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