[Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical application to sonnet 23

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Tue Apr 19 10:28:07 EDT 2016


This is an interesting question, and I think that there may certainly be a limit in particular cases, instances where the returns for following out implications of the kind we're discussing begin to diminish.  I don't think this poem is one of those instances, however-or at least I have not yet found the point of diminishing returns.  This is what I think is great (in the big sense of that term) about this particular poem, and I'm not aware of many other poems that exhibit this virtue as intensely.

There are of course many ways in which a poem can be great, or effective, or beautiful, or moving, etc.  This is a particularly great example of one of those ways-different from the greatness, for instance, of the sonnet by Sidney that John Leonard  quoted for us earlier in this discussion.  The pleasures and meanings in that poem are available much closer to the surface in the verbal texture and in a more immediate and straightforward relationship to the history of the dream-vision poem.  Anyone who can read a poem with pleasure is likely to get a great deal of immediate pleasure from that poem.  It helps if you've read a few earlier dream-vision love sonnets before, but more than that isn't necessary.  The poem's effectiveness does not, as Milton's does, depend on attention to a complex of allusions to myth, theology, the bible, the history of Christian ritual practices, and the life of the poet.

As far as your comments on the "which wife" question is concerned, I won't belabor the whole reading I've presented in print about this, but I will say that I strongly disagree with idea that the that the poem's possible presentation of a composite image of the spouse or an overlaying of images referring to both wives is less poignant that unambiguous reference to one.  It's not inviting us to "take our pick," either, but it can be read as an expression of what is called by some psychologists, "condensation," the experience of more than one meaning or reference being superimposed in dream images.  This suggestion about the poem was, to my knowledge, first suggested in 1985 in a lovely essay by Elizabeth K. Hill, and my own reading in Milton and Maternal Mortality is strongly influenced by her insight.  My sense is that, on this matter, the key image is the veil, which on the biographical level I've argued refers to both wives-Mary because of its associations with Churching and Katherine because Milton never saw her face and therefore could not imagine it in the dream.  But, of course, it also maintains the condensation because its lifting would reveal which wife.  This is one of the reason (not the only one) that it is the inclining toward embrace that wakes the speaker.

For me, the remarkable thing about this particular poem is just how much semantic richness becomes available once we take the invitation to follow out these threads. It even seems to me, on the self-referential level, to be about how this works and how far it can go.  In my experience, in any case, this level on semantic intensity is rare.  Milton's practice with it is distinctive and powerfully successful.


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 Gregory Machacek
Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2016 9:16 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical application to sonnet 23

A number of recent comments provide a really good pretext for raising a point that I had intended to raise only in one of my later "installments."  I can't pass up the opportunity.  See the ingenuity of Truth, who when she gets a free and willing hand, opens her self faster than the pace of method and discours can overtake her.
Richard Strier says that in sonnet 23, Milton is attempting to "capture the power of what he had experienced" in the dream he had of his late-espoused saint.  Carol Barton describes that experience in appreciative and sympathetic paraphrase:
"It is only when we experience the longing for a loved one gone--his or her oh so real return in vivid dreams--and waking to the reality of the loss that we can understand the deep, sharp-edged desire (almost an obsession) to believe that we will see him or her in heaven, whole and purified of all sin and blemish. Milton wants with all his heart to believe that his late espoused saint will not only be restored to him, but restored to him in the glory of unity with God."
Richard says that to capture this experience, Milton "feels that he needs to bring his whole knowledge of antiquity, classical and well as biblical, to bear on the experience."   And Carol says that "I suspect that Milton, in writing this, was far more concerned with substance than he was with the strict demands of form."
The overall thrust of these characterizations is that Milton's sonnet is good because he packs into it so much meaning:  so much of the power the experience had for him, so much substance, his whole knowledge of antiquity.
Neither one of them is saying, nor, I'm certain, would crudely say that more meaning makes for a better poem.  Yet there are indications that, on balance, more meaning is a good thing and that it's almost impossible to imagine too much meaning.  "That's a lot to do in a sonnet, but he does it" is laudatory (emphasis added).  Even Louis Schwartz's gesture toward "how unreasonably much can be found freighted into the lines" doesn't sound pejorative so much as admiring (emphasis added).
So here's the theoretical question:  Is there any amount of meaning that could be deemed superabundant?  Is a superabundance of meaning, as the kids ask, even a thing?  Could there actually be unreasonably much in a poem?  Can a poem's pinnace be overfraught?  Could a poem reach a point where more meaning was actually a detriment rather than a virtue?  And if such a thing can be imagined, what would such a overfraught poem look like?
I ask this in particular connection with what Louis Schwartz tells us:
I don't think the reference [in "Purification in the old law did save"] 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
The sonnet never overtly identifies which wife it concerns.  It contains one subtle reference that makes Mary a possibility and one subtle reference (maybe two) that makes Katherine a possibility.  Does it improve the sonnet to have both of those "meanings" available in the poem?  Are we to understand the dream-image as a composite of Mary and Katherine?  And would the poem have quite the same poignancy if Milton is reporting seeing wife-in-general rather than one specific one of his wives?  For me it would be less poignant, even if I knew he loved both of his wives deeply.  I don't mind his not saying which wife it was, but I think the poem is more powerful if it the dream image is to be thought of one of his wives, not some kind of composite (and certainly not take-your-pick; there's zero poignancy in that).
If such a thing can even be imagined at all, might this be a case where more meaning is a detriment rather than a virtue?

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College
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