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

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Tue Apr 19 13:57:27 EDT 2016


Matt--There is a spectrum of evident-ness, as my example of Orpheus
suggests, and a reader is at liberty to accept or reject the less evident
meanings; "evident" is always *evident-to* someone.Or to answer Greg's
question, if I dislike a line as having too many meanings, maybe I should
interpret less aggressively. Since one cannot objectively quantify the
meanings in a line, I don't see how that can be a standard of aesthetic
judgement.Take the Orpheus allusion or leave it.

On Tue, Apr 19, 2016 at 12:21 PM, Matthew Jordan <matthewjorda at gmail.com>
wrote:

> As an absolute distinction, that sounds like e d hirsch, and even Quentin
> Skinner has abandoned him. That's not to say there isn't something like a
> spectrum of obviousness or evidentness; but anything like a clear cut
> division between, say, observation and interpretation won't hold...
>
> Best, Matt
>
> Sent from my iPhone
>
> On 19 Apr 2016, at 17:10, Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu> wrote:
>
> 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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