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

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Tue Apr 19 12:10:02 EDT 2016


Good question by Greg and good comments by Matthew, Carol, and Louis.

Is Orpheus in sonnet 23, line 14? For me, he wasn't until I read a
suggestion that he is, so now for me he is in there, vaguely, in an implied
comparison. I accept that suggestion because I know that the myth was often
in Milton's mind. But Orpheus is in there only as a tenuous association, so
I wouldn't try to hang an argument on his presence, and I probably wouldn't
bring it up in class.
But I am glad to include Orpheus in my version of sonnet 23.

So there is a distinction between meanings that are clearly in the text,
and meanings that are *found-in*, with greater or less degrees of
justification. Greg's question is really about hermeneutics more than
properties of the text per se.

On Tue, Apr 19, 2016 at 11:36 AM, Schwartz, Louis <lschwart at richmond.edu>
wrote:

> Carol,
>
>
> Yes.  This is why I said we make something different of it.  I don't see
> that we can be that certain of the speaker's certainty.  Different readings
> follow from how we construe this aspect of what he says.  But what he says
> suggests something more complex than just that he is speaking so privately
> that he has no reason to clarify the matter for "us" or in the fiction of
> the poem his interlocutor
>
>
> 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 Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, April 19, 2016 11:22 AM
>
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical
> application to sonnet 23
>
> I don't disagree with you, Louis. Both wives *are* there--just as every
> new bereavement we experience echoes every bereavement we have experienced
> in the past. I don't think, though, that the apparition is an amalgamation.
> Milton knows whom he has seen--it just isn't critical (or even technically
> desirable) for him to tell *us* which one she is.
>
> All best,
>
> Carol
>
> *From:* Schwartz, Louis <lschwart at richmond.edu>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, April 19, 2016 11:08 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical
> application to sonnet 23
>
> ​I believe, whatever we make of it or however we value it, that the
> presence of images in the poem that allude to both wives is indisputable.
> I make something of it quite different from what Carol does, and I clearly
> value it differently from John, Matt, and Greg, but it's there.  It's
> something Milton did, however we construe his intentions or however we
> value the outcome.
>
>
> 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 John K Leonard <jleonard at uwo.ca>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, April 19, 2016 10:42 AM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical
> application to sonnet 23
>
> I too think the poem is diminished if we imagine two wives. I imagine just
> one, Katherine. A large part of the poignancy comes from the fact that
> Milton (and I prefer 'Milton' to 'Milton's speaker') had never seen her,
> and eagerly awaits seeing her face for the first time as she leans in to
> kiss, seeming about to lift her veil. Campbell and Corns add the
> significant detail that the expiry of her time of 'Purification' signals
> the time for resuming sexual intimacy, so the dreaming poet may be
> anticipating more than just a kiss. "But O...' I don't think anyone on this
> thread has yet mentioned the parallel with Adam's 'Methought I saw' dream
> in book 8 of PL (first noted by the Richardsons and since noted by many
> others). Adam (to Keats's delight) awoke and found it truth. The experience
> of this dreamer was not so happy, but even more poignant.
>
> I'm astonished that this sonnet leaves some of you cold
>
> John Leonard
>
> On 04/19/16, *Matthew Jordan *<matthewjorda at gmail.com> wrote:
>
> For me, two wives diminishes the poignancy as it increases the
> self-referentiality of the emotion evoked.
>
> Tho I can't give a precise reference, Empson in 7 Types certainly sees as
> flawed cases of ambiguity (plurality of meaning) where the author seems
> merely confused or unclear in his thought.
>
> It's true, tho, that "we" are almost constitutively keen on semantic
> "richness"....
>
> Best, Matt
>
> Sent from my iPhone
>
> On 19 Apr 2016, at 14:15, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
> wrote:
>
> 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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