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

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Tue Apr 19 10:56:01 EDT 2016


Gregory, you've given us a good deal to ponder here. Some quick impressions:

1. I think Milton's vagueness with regard to the identity of the apparition is both acutely personal and artistically intentional. This is a very, very private poem, describing an experience of the kind one doesn't usually share with just anyone--though most people who have lost someone dearly beloved have experienced something like it. To "see" that person again in a vivid dream is wish-fulfillment at its most intense, a moment of joy that dissolves into equal and opposite bereavement yet again when the dreamer awakens. Milton knows which wife he sees, and though her identity is obviously of crucial importance to him, it *isn't* important to the description of the experience--which is the purpose of the poem,  "captur[ing] the power of what he had experienced." That's the "personal." From an artistic standpoint, to specify whom he sees is to rob the image of its universality, rather like the aftermath of watching Gregory Peck play Captain Ahab or Atticus Finch: it precludes you from superimposing your own vision of the character on the novel ever again. Without a face, the apparition Milton sees can be any man's late beloved wife; calling her "Katherine" or "Mary" (or Cindy Lou Who) makes the poem about *one* man and *one* woman, instead of every bereaved person and the person taken from him or her.  I would ask those of you who have experienced this kind of loss to think for a moment about whether the poem struck a chord in you--whether you associated it with a wife who died in childbirth, or your grandmother, or your father or brother or uncle? ("Would the poem have quite the same poignancy if Milton is reporting seeing wife-in-general rather than one specific one of his wives?") It's not *about* this man and this wife; it's about bereavement--that's why the answer to your question is "No!" The greatest virtue of this poem (as in the greatest of all great literature) is that it captures something timelessly essential to the human condition, something powerful and almost ecstatic and virtually ineffable. 

2. As such, I think this poem comes perilously close to being a case where more *feeling* is a detriment, especially for a poet who has difficulty confronting his own deepest emotions. There is a certain ability to detach in many authors that makes them more camera than participant, even in the events of their own lives, and here, I can almost feel Milton straining to force himself to stand back, to shield himself as it were with his erudition, to talk himself down by willing himself to make the exterior connections that are more comfortable territory.

3. For me, _The Waste Land_ is a case where more meaning is a detriment rather than a virtue. So is _Ulysses_. (Snarky, I know.)

Best to all,

Carol Barton


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