[Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 3

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Mon Apr 18 18:06:44 EDT 2016


 *It seems to me that Milton 's speaker is too wrongheaded, both morally
and theologically, to be straightforwardly identified with the author.
Which is as much as to say that the genre, as sometimes in Donne's Holy
Sonnets, is a kind of cautionary monodrama; we are being shown frailties of
which we can ill afford to be contemptuous because, mutatis mutandis, they
are ours.*
* And here, given the genre,  the spondaic emphasis on "old law" in the
allegedly clunky sixth line is telling: the law the speaker would be better
off emphasizing in the context of his dream is the law of love (Galatians
5:14) expressed in his wife's last, and interrupted, gesture.*

*Take a second look at the dream report.*

*Milton seemed to see his sainted wife, brought back to him from the dead
as Alcestis was brought back to Admetus. His wife ("Mine"), if not
Admetus's, is as pure as a mother purged of childbed taint under the Old
Ritual Law. This was the kind of purity he is confident he will find in
heaven, when he has an unobstructed view of her. But In spite of her veil,
the love, sweetness, and goodness visible in her person were as obvious to
his imagination as her face will be without the veil. Unfortunately, at the
moment when she leaned forward to embrace him, he awakened, she vanished,
and he was back in a day that might as well be night for all he can see of
it. *

*It seems clear that childbed taint is not the threat to "purity" the
dreamer is worrying about, and that that is the point of starting off by
asking us to think of Alcestis. *

*At the end of Euripides' play, Heracles warns Admetus not to touch his
wife, newly wrested from Thanatos, for three days. The Old Law contains
similar warnings. (So, admittedly, does the Gospel, in Jesus's noli me
tangere to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17)--but that's a different story.) In
short, the dreamer (Milton's surrogate, not Milton) needs to reckon with
the taint of mortality--his mortality, not hers. He has yet to free himself
from "Old Law" carnality and superstition about the nature of purity.*

*Consider what she's trying to do just before she's interrupted and, in
effect, driven off: "enclining" (leaning in) to embrace him--with no trace
of misgivings about the Alcestis-like "taint" she may be inflicting. *

*T**he dream report in Sonnet 23, line six included, has the kind of
charged irony and pathos we expect in a great sonnet.*

On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 5:19 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com> wrote:

> Richard --
>
> Thanks very much for this post. There's no question about Milton's
> erudition, and we can debate about it's appropriateness for any variety of
> subject matters, but of course that would be pointless: he's Milton, so
> he's going to be erudite. That's one of the reasons that we read him.
>
> However, I just don't see an octave/sestet division in the poem. Here's
> the poem as reproduced in the Milton Reading Room:
>
> Methought I saw my late espoused Saint
> Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
> Whom Joves great son to her glad Husband gave,
> Rescu'd from death by force though pale and faint.
>
> 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:
> Her face was vail'd, yet to my fancied sight, [ 10 ]
> Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
>
> So clear, as in no face with more delight.
> But O as to embrace me she enclin'd,
> I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.
>
> Lines 1 and 2 seem to me to establish the poem's immediate context: the
> narrator's vision of his deceased wife. Lines 2-4 establish a comparison of
> this vision to Alcestis while lines 5-6 establish a comparison with women
> in the Hebrew Scriptures who are "free from spot of child-bed taint" --
> which seems to me to be a reference to a woman's ceremonial uncleanness in
> the Mosaic law during either her menstrual period of after childbirth, the
> same laws governing both. Both male and female emissions make each unclean
> -- see Lev. 12 for childbirth and Lev. 15 for male and female emissions.
>
> Lines 7-12 seem to me to form another coherent conceptual unit, as Milton
> moves from paganism (lines 2-4) to Judaism (lines 5-6) to Christianity
> (lines 7-12) to imagine his beloved pure and spotless in heaven, while
> lines 5-12 form a single grammatical unit (in the sense of being a single
> sentence).
>
> So far as this goes, it is again an interesting but compressed example of
> what Milton does throughout PL.
>
> The two lines at the end (which are not a couplet) form a new, final
> sentence and completely change the subject, as the poet dreams that his
> dead wife leaned in to embrace him. The previous 12 lines were description
> (in the sense of "how" she appeared to him in the vision): the last two are
> action. The possibility of an embrace ended with the poet awaking: since
> she fled when he awakened, it is possible the incorporeality of his dream
> or poetic self may have been capable of receiving a pure embrace from his
> visionary, dead wife, but his conscious, corporeal self could not -- so she
> fled when he awoke.
>
> His return to consciousness in the last line is the major turn in the
> poem: lines 1-13 narrate the dream, while line 14 narrates consciousness
> (and line 13 is the turn to this point). Line 14 establishes the conceit
> that defines the poem: the poet is in a metaphorical night during waking
> hours because he is absent from his dead wife while conscious, but on the
> other hand, he is metaphorically in light during literal night because he
> can be present with his dead wife. Milton the Metaphysical poet?
>
> But this reading of the poem makes an octave/sestet pattern disappear for
> me, esp. since lines 8-9 are in the middle of an eight-line sentence. Being
> the midpoint of the sentence might be significant, but I don't see it
> conceptually, as it's not quite in the middle of the poet's Christian
> vision of his dead wife. It is simply a part of this section of the poem.
>
> We could read the 4-4-3-3 pattern as establishing a kind of octave/sestet
> pattern, but they are four separate stanzas, and there's no conceptual turn
> at line 9.
>
> It could be that I still need more time with the poem, and yes, the poem
> does get more interesting for me the more we discuss it, but I don't see an
> octave/sestet division. I see 12 lines followed by two lines with a turn in
> line 13. So to summarize:
>
> Lines 1-12 description of the dream
> ...Lines 2-4: pagan comparison to his dead wife (lines 1-4 are one
> sentence)
> ...Lines 5-6: OT comparison to his dead wife
> ...Lines 7-12: Christian vision of his dead wife (lines 5-12 are one
> sentence)
> Line 13: action in the dream: attempted embrace
> Line 14: continued action, waking self and despair (lines 13-14 are one
> sentence)
>
> The poem could also be read as an allegory for western spiritual
> development, progressing from paganism through the OT law to Christianity,
> the latter being a (perhaps not the best comparison) kind of Platonist
> Christianity that despairs of the Christian's material existence. I may be
> inclined to read the poem as only about the poet's dead wife before I said
> that Milton was a Platonist Christian.
>
> Jim R
>
> On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 4:31 PM, Richard A. Strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu>
> wrote:
>
>> To capture the power of what he had experienced, Milton -- no problem
>> with this proper name here -- feels that he needs to bring his whole
>> knowledge of antiquity, classical and well as biblical, to bear on the
>> experience.  That's a lot to do in a sonnet, but he does it.  He is trying
>> to capture a visionary and powerfully emotional experience.  He moves from
>> powerful analogies -- "like ... as whom" to an imagined reality, "such," to
>> an act of faith, "I trust."  The poem does have a clear octave-sestet
>> division, since the narrative that began in line 1 is continued at line 9,
>> and the whole sestet is in the narrative mode.  Here, Milton's learning,
>> relied on in the octave, serves to give the experience (narrated) the
>> weight that he felt it had -- or rather, that it had for him.
>>
>> RS
>> ------------------------------
>> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on
>> behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu]
>> *Sent:* Monday, April 18, 2016 2:59 PM
>>
>> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
>> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good,
>> installment 3
>>
>> As I mentioned in my earlier comments to this thread, “Purification in
>> the Old Law” is, I think, there to freight the lines with typological and
>> allusive weight—something Milton does even at the risk of (maybe) awkward
>> irregularity and bookishness.  I don’t think the reference is to the Virgin
>> Mary in a specific way, but the reference does suggest her, and she’s the
>> nexus of the poem’s typological structure.  The suggestion also ties the
>> reference to childbed to the poem’s biographical level, both because of the
>> relationship between the Virgin’s purification and the later Christian rite
>> of Churching and because her name suggests Milton’s first wife, while
>> “purification” suggests the name of his second wife, who also died, I might
>> add, just to show how unreasonably much can be found freighted into the
>> lines if you choose to follow out these implications, on February 3, 1658,
>> a day after the date of the celebration of the Feast of the Purification
>> that year (this was first noted by Fitzroy Pyle in 1949 as part of his
>> argument that the sonnet is about Katherine Woodcock—while Parker was
>> arguing that it is about Mary Powell).  More about why I think all of this
>> matters can be found in chapter 7 of *Milton and Maternal Mortality*.
>>
>>
>>
>> I think the slight strain in the reference to salvation in the old law
>> (and I agree that it’s there) is part of the general straining toward “big
>> meaning” that I think the sonnet is, among other things, about.
>>
>>
>>
>> I’m reminded, as I often am, of what my late teacher Allen Grossman used
>> to say:  “a poem is about something the way a cat is about the house.”
>>
>>
>>
>> Lots of large and small rooms in this particular poem.  Some have a view.
>> Some are dark and interior.  A few have leaning walls and uneven flooring.
>> Strong basic architecture.  Dense, antique decorative scheme.  Unsettling
>> foundation.
>>
>>
>>
>> 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] *On Behalf Of *Matthew Jordan
>> *Sent:* Monday, April 18, 2016 2:26 PM
>> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
>> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good,
>> installment 3
>>
>>
>>
>> I've always wondered whether (in the sense of one day meaning to find
>> out) it's Mary as in Luke 2:22. The reading Greg would thus give it is the
>> one I've presumed, despite my relative lack of theological wherewithal
>> ....."As whom" meaning something like "Just like Mary"....
>>
>>
>>
>> Best, Matt
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>> Sent from my iPhone
>>
>>
>> On 18 Apr 2016, at 18:36, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
>> wrote:
>>
>> I anticipated that one way of saving “save” might be the first of Michael
>> G.’s suggestions here:  that is, to understand it as coming along with a
>> “in the sense (or to the extent) that the Old Covenant understood
>> salvation.”  I’ll address that possibility at the end of this post.
>>
>> I’m more interested in his second suggestion, and I asked my question as
>> a genuine question in order to suss out answers precisely like this second
>> one that he gives:  that, yes, pre-Christian figures *were* in fact held
>> to be capable of salvation, salvation full-stop; that elements of the law,
>> operating as typological prefigurements of Christ, could save in the full
>> Christian sense of “save.”  And as soon as Michael G. says this, I remember
>> Dante, for example, who can’t bear not to have certain great Old Testament
>> figures like Moses and Abraham and Adam in Heaven, so he invokes
>> essentially this principle as explaining why they ascended at the time of
>> the Harrowing of Hell.  (Or—why go so far afield?—Adam interpreting the
>> protoevengeilum in PL.)  So, thank you, Michael.
>>
>> If we avail ourselves of this second possibility, we would have to
>> understand Milton’s lines here as saying that this dream figure of his wife
>> appeared to him “as an ancient Israelite woman who, in her post-child-birth
>> purification ritual, experienced a typological prefigurement of Christ so
>> powerful as to operate, through the faith she placed in it, salvifically.”
>> That’s a lot to pack in to this phrase, but great poetry often works by
>> condensing a lot of meaning into few words, so, if the total context of the
>> poem demands that we take “Purification in the old Law did save” as meaning
>> what I just laid out, then we take it that way (and *credit* Milton with
>> how much meaning he can pack into so few words).
>>
>> That meaning, though, does require that we imaginatively construct this
>> hypothetical ancient Israelite (not a Moses or an Adam) for whom one of the
>> relatively mundane codicils in the Law operated as a salvific prefigurement
>> of Christ.  And *that* (imaginatively constructing a hypothetical figure
>> with a fairly unusual life experience) is one step more than just “packing
>> a lot of meaning into few words.”   What I mean is this:  the phrase after
>> “whom” is supposed to be helping us understand how Milton experienced the
>> dream figure of the late-espoused saint, but instead of getting some
>> relatively straightforward (or even Miltonically complex) way in which this
>> “whom” helps us understand the “Mine,” we launch off on an elaborate
>> piecing together of the kind of person this “whom” must be.  And what’s the
>> yield for the “mine,” once we’ve unscrambled the sort of person this “whom”
>> must be?  My saint was brought to me (from Heaven, as line 8 says
>> explicitly, but as we've had to assume even from as early as 2) like a
>> woman whose pre-Christian faith in Christ secured her a place in Heaven. No
>> yield.
>>
>> (I understand, secondhand through Honingmann, that Fitzroy Pyle has
>> proposed that “whom” is not just some random “one whom” but a very
>> particular “*the* one whom”:  Mary.  *Her *purification is mentioned in
>> Luke and was celebrated as a feast day.  Could I ask how widely accepted
>> that interpretation is among the admirers of the poem?  How many readers
>> slot “Mary” in as the referent for “whom”?  It hasn't come up yet in our
>> discussion of the poem.)
>>
>> Michael’s first suggestion is less attractive to me, and I’ll say why.
>> If we adopt the extremely strict dichotomy from Paul’s insistence that the
>> Law can’t save, and we read Milton’s lines as implying “save, according to
>> their belief,” the strict Pauline mind is going by reflex to supply a
>> qualification to this implication, and the totality will run as follows:
>> “save, according to their (mistaken) belief (that anything under the Law
>> could save),”  And *that* would simply return us to the thing about
>> “save” that needs solving.  The line would in effect have scare quotes:
>> “Purification in the old Law did ‘save.’”  I don’t think one wants scare
>> quotes around one of the key words in one’s sonnet.
>>
>> The second solution, the reference to the idea represented in the
>> Westminster Cathecism, is the better solution, though even it, as I hope I
>> have shown, comes with its own problems in how this “save” runs athwart
>> other things the sonnet is trying to get expressed.
>>
>>
>>
>> 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: Michael Gillum
>> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
>> Date: 04/18/2016 08:50AM
>> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good,
>> installment 3
>>
>> The word "save" effectively reinforces the typological significance of
>> purification rituals. Milton might be using it with an implied "according
>> to their belief," or perhaps with a touch of irony. But some Protestants
>> believed that holy persons in the Hebrew Bible actually could have been
>> saved by grace but through the influence of "types" on their faith.
>> Consider this from the Westminster Larger Catechism:
>>
>>
>>
>> The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by
>> promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other
>> types and ordinances, which did all fore-signify Christ then to come, and
>> were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the
>> promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal
>> salvation. (Answer to Question 34)
>>
>> Michael
>>
>>
>>
>> On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 7:27 PM, Horace Jeffery Hodges <
>> horacejeffery at gmail.com> wrote:
>>
>> I'd want to leave open both possibilities. but in either case, Milton's
>> views on the holy, the unclean, the clean, and the common would be
>> (potentionally) relevant to a poem of this sort.
>>
>>
>> Jeffery Hodges
>>
>>
>>
>> On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 3:22 PM, Gregory Machacek <
>> Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
>>
>> Well, one often tries to leave open the possibility that the speaker of a
>> poem is not simply to be equated with the author.  Harold Skulsky's reading
>> calls for us to speak of Milton's "surrogate" in the poem.
>>
>>
>>
>> But insofar as you regard the speaker and Milton as equivalent, feel free
>> to answer for Milton.  (Milton in communication with whatever audience you
>> imagine he was trying to reach.)
>>
>>
>>
>> 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: Horace Jeffery Hodges
>> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
>> Date: 04/17/2016 03:21PM
>> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good,
>> installment 3
>>
>>
>>
>> Gregory Machacek:  Should a Christian speaker speak of anything in the
>> old law as “saving”?  *Can* a Christian speaker use that theologically
>> charged word in such a context as this?  Isn’t almost the most fundamental
>> difference that Christians understand between the old law and the new law
>> that *nothing* under the old law *can* save (but can only convict)?
>>
>>
>> Jeffery Hodges: Shouldn't the questions be about Milton specifically
>> rather than a hypothetical Christian?
>>
>>
>>
>> Jeffery Hodges
>>
>>
>>
>> On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 11:54 PM, Gregory Machacek <
>> Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
>>
>> So, in connection with Jeffery’s comment, I’ll take what was going to be
>> installment 4 and offer it as installment 3.
>>
>> To Jeffery:  Please know that I’m not opposed to reading “old” as
>> carrying the semantic weight that you propose it could carry (and
>> therefore, prosodically, pyrrhic spondee).  But to the extent that one does
>> place a vocal stress on “old,” as John C. has remarked, one implies a
>> contrast (as you yourself point out, with the new law), and that contrast
>> is one that the poem doesn’t (explicitly, at least) reference.  All I’m
>> saying is that with “th’old law” one has to make a choice between two
>> options, both of which are bad:  1) downplay the word, in which case it’s
>> filler, or 2) stress it, in which case it implies a contrast that no other
>> portion of the poem explicitly picks up—one half of a contrast that kind of
>> hangs there without its other half.
>>
>> Now to everyone: But the old law and the new law bear on another thing
>> that’s troublesome about this line.  Let me get to it through a series of
>> questions, questions that I put to the list in all sincerity (I genuinely
>> want to hear people’s answers), even though you will soon see they are also
>> tendentious.
>>
>> In English, to speak of an Israelite woman who had completed her post
>> child-birth purification ritual, is the expression that one would choose
>> (if one weren’t under the exigency of rhyme) to say that she had been
>> “saved”?  My first question is just that:  is what the Levitical post
>> child-birth purification ritual does well described, in English, as
>> “saving” a woman?  And not even “saving” her from uncleanliness, which is
>> to my ears itself an awkward enough expression, but “saving” her full-stop
>> (since by this stage of the poem she doesn’t need to be “saved” from
>> impurity; she’s in the previous line already been described as “washt” from
>> that).  Is what purification in the old law does well expressed as to
>> “save”?
>>
>> And now I’ll ask a more pointed version of that same question.  Should a
>> Christian speaker speak of anything in the old law as “saving”?  *Can* a
>> Christian speaker use that theologically charged word in such a context as
>> this?  Isn’t almost the most fundamental difference that Christians
>> understand between the old law and the new law that *nothing* under the
>> old law *can* save (but can only convict)?
>>
>> You can likely see where these questions are driving.  I think this is
>> one of these cases where rhyme constrained an author to “express things
>> otherwise, and for the most part worse, then else he would have expressed
>> them.”  I think the dimension of the dream image that Milton is trying to
>> describe in these two lines (When I saw my late espoused saint in a dream
>> she appeared to me to be pure) brings in its trail, given one of the words
>> Milton uses to describe that purity, a very theologically discordant
>> assertion—that purification in the old law saves—and that discordance comes
>> about largely just because Milton needs another –ave rhyme (it’s a sound
>> that has relatively few rhyme words) to complete his octave.
>>
>> P.S.  It’s becoming clear to me that I am going to have simultaneously to
>> demonstrate why sonnet 23 is a poor poem *and* defend engaging in such
>> an enterprise at all, since we have both conversations running through this
>> thread.  Why would anybody even engage in such a perverse undertaking as to
>> demonstrate that a poem many people report as finding profound and touching
>> is “in fact” poor? So, as a rapid-fire set of answers to this:
>>
>> “If a poem can be read meaningfully it is good, and irregularity can be
>> meaningful. Bad verse should simply be ignored, not labored over. Our role
>> is to enhance appreciation, not diminish it.”
>>
>> from Hugh R.  One, I agree whole-heartedly that irregularity can be
>> meaningful.  I’m not looking for regularity in “Purification in”; I’m
>> looking *either* for regularity or for meaningful irregularity and
>> finding that “Purification in” is not a meaningful irregularity, but simply
>> a weak stretch within the overall rhythm.  Two, we can’t ignore bad verse
>> and enhance appreciation of good without a prior determination of which is
>> which, so evaluation was at *some* stage presumably a necessary
>> activity.  Three, I’d want you to know that I spend 90% of my work life
>> believing in and trying to achieve precisely that ideal that you articulate
>> of enhancing people’s appreciation of literature.  But four, we’re all
>> adults here; if the flaws I point out in sonnet 23 aren’t flaws, they won’t
>> diminish the appreciation of this sonnet of anyone here.  Five, if they
>> *are* flaws, pointing them out might come with the compensating value of
>> enhancing readers’ appreciation of better composed passages.  (There's a
>> sixth and lastly that wouldn't be quick, so I'll look for another occasion).
>>
>>
>>
>>
>> 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: Horace Jeffery Hodges
>> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
>> Date: 04/16/2016 04:46PM
>> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good,
>> installment 2
>>
>> Greg Machacek: In fact, there isn’t an old law and a new law; there’s an
>> old covenant (of the law) and a new covenant, of grace.  “Old Law” is
>> redundant; the word “Law” all by itself would have conveyed the notion
>> old.  “Old” here is what in newspaper verse we can recognize as filler.
>>
>>
>>
>> Jeffery Hodges: But one finds in the New Testament these opposing
>> expressions: "old law" vs. "new law" and "law of works" vs. "law of grace,"
>> and they are used throughout the Christian tradition all the way down to
>> our time. The term "old" need not be considered mere "filler."
>>
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>
>
>
> --
> Dr. James Rovira
> Associate Professor of English
> Tiffin University
> http://www.jamesrovira.com
> Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety
> Continuum 2010
> http://jamesrovira.com/blake-and-kierkegaard-creation-and-anxiety/
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