[Milton-L] a theoretical question

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Tue Apr 19 12:35:37 EDT 2016

I think that the theoretical question Gregory raises is an interesting and important one.  But instead of the question, "Can a poem be overloaded?"  I think that the question is whether multiplicity or richness of meaning is the only criterion for greatness in poetry?  I do not think that there is a single criterion -- except possibly memorability, which can be the result of many different sorts of things.  I think that there are great poems that say one thing beautifully, and that there are others about which it is hard to say what they are saying (some Ashbery poems, for instance) but which one feels their power and (possible) coherence nonetheless.  And of course there are great poems that seem to have a richness or multiplicity of meaning.  Poetry offers many different sorts of illuminations and pleasures, though, as I said, I think memorability (at least  of parts or phrases) is something like a constant.

PS-- About the 2 wives issue, I do not have a strong opinion, but I do think that there is a strong sense in the poem of a particular woman being spoken of.

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2016 8:15 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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