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

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Fri Apr 15 20:23:21 EDT 2016


*From where I sit, Sonnet 23 has the kind of charged subtlety, paradox, and
pathos we expect in a great sonnet. Take a second look at the dream report.*

*Milton seems to see his sainted wife, brought back to him from the dead as
Alcestis was brought back to Admetus. His wife ("Mine"), unlike Admetus's,
is as pure as a mother purged of childbed taint under the Old Ritual Law.
It's a purity he is confident he will find when he has an unobstructed view
of her in heaven. None the less, in spite of her Alcestis-like veil, the
love, sweetness, and goodness visible in her person are as obvious to his
imagination as her face would be. Unfortunately, at the moment when she
leans forward to embrace him, he awakens, she vanishes, and he is back in a
day that might as well be night for all he can see of it. *

*It seems clear that, if anything, childbed taint is not the threat to
"purity" that the dreamer should be worrying about. At the end of
Euripides' play, Heracles warns Admetus not to touch his wife, newly
released by Thanatos, for three days. The Old Law contains similar
warnings; compare Jesus's noli me tangere  to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17).
 In short, the dreamer needs to reckon with the taint of mortality--his
mortality, not hers. Consider what she's trying to do just before she's
interrupted: "enclining" (leaning in) to embrace him--and doing this with
no trace of misgivings about "taint."*

*As for the alleged dissonance of a trochaic substitution for an iamb
followed by a pyrrhic-plus-spondee substitution for two iambs in
"PŪRĬ-fica-TIŎN  ĬN TH'ŌLD  LĀW did save," these are normal variations in
the pentameter; for the pyrrhic-plus-spondee, compare "TŎ HĔR GLĀD HŪSband
gave" (line 3). The emphasis in the allegedly clunky line is telling: the
law the speaker would be better off emphasizing is the law (Galatians 5:14)
expressed in his wife's last interrupted gesture.*
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