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

Hugh M. RICHMOND hmr at berkeley.edu
Tue Apr 19 15:49:26 EDT 2016


Surely Milton would have seen his first wife's face?

On Tue, Apr 19, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM <
cbartonphd1 at verizon.net> wrote:

> Gregory--for me, the reference to the second wife is entirely valid,
> and Lockean: how can one think of the loss of one much-beloved loved one
> without (at some point in the contemplation) think about the others?
> Katherine may have been the love of his life, but Mary was the mother of
> his children; both were significant, even if his devotion to them was
> different. (And yes, Katherine was technically the mother of his child,
> too, but her namesake didn't survive to grow up into someone Milton knew
> the same way he knew his other daughters.) There may have been a tinge of
> guilt in the remembrance, too: dreaming of his late espoused saint with
> such intense longing, and making the associative jump to his other late
> espoused saint (for whom his feelings were less passionate?) would have
> been almost unavoidable. Those of you who have lost two parents may
> understand what I'm driving at: you mourn them both, but you miss the one
> who was your heart's favorite more acutely . . . you can't help yourself.
>
> I suspect that some of the flaws you see in this poem have to do with its
> urgency, with Milton's astonishment at the intensity of this experience,
> and perhaps his bewilderment that he was even capable of such a powerful
> emotion.
>
> As to your question, "Does our assessment of the quality of a poem depend
> in part on what has been kept out of it (even if that is of course much
> harder to specify)?  And if some things that would diminish a poem haven't
> been kept out, can those be counted as flaws in the poem?"--I give you
> "Jabberwocky." It can be said that the lack of a glossary to define
> Carroll's portmanteaus, and our lack of knowledge as to what a "vorpal
> sword" is, or what a "tulgy wood" looks like, diminishes the poem.
>
> But they don't, do they?
>
> Best to all,
>
> Carol Barton
>
> *From:* Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, April 19, 2016 1:24 PM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> *Subject:* Re: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical
> application to sonnet 23
>
> Ok, so for people for whom the poem is a better poem if it's a poem about
> one of his wives, (John L. and Matt, but others too) how does the fact that
> Milton includes an indirect reference to the name of the other wife factor
> into your evaluation of the poem?  Do you just silently cancel *that *"meaning"
> on Milton's behalf, no discredit to him?
>
> Does a poet have any responsibility for keeping certain things *out* of a
> poem?  Does our assessment of the quality of a poem depend in part on what
> has been kept out of it (even if that is of course much harder to
> specify)?  And if some things that would diminish a poem haven't been kept
> out, can those be counted as flaws in the poem?
>
> Yes, thank you, Matt.  Probably digging back into Empson would help me to
> pursue the kind of criticism I've been trying to pursue here.
>
> (FWIW: I, at least, haven't yet said I find the poem "cold," just "poor."
>  And by the way, I think there's an advantage to sticking to Johnson's
> "poor" over the "bad" into which we've slipped.  I know I'm a culprit.  At
> an early stage,to signal that I understood the perversity of the enterprise
> I've undertaking, I adapted an earlier subject line "finding good in the
> bad" to "finding the bad in what you find good."  But from now on, my posts
> will be under the title, "milton's poor sonnet, installment #.")
>
>
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
>
>
> -----milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu wrote: -----
> ;To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> From: John K Leonard
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
> Date: 04/19/2016 10:44AM
> 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
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> https://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> https://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
> ------------------------------
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> https://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> https://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.richmond.edu/pipermail/milton-l/attachments/20160419/4dd5c9bf/attachment-0001.html>


More information about the Milton-L mailing list