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

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Tue Apr 19 16:07:59 EDT 2016


He may have seen *this* wife, too, Hugh: "as yet once more I trust to have / Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint."

(How can you "yet once more" have "full sight" of someone you have never seen before?)

Or is it that he "yet once more" trusts?

Orbless Samson wishes that sight would "once more visit these orbs," too. I guess it depends on how literal we want to be about all of this. 

And with that, having exceeded my quota of postings for the day (though I hope I may be forgiven, as I haven't posted much in recent months), I bid you all a good evening!

Carol Barton


From: Hugh M. RICHMOND 
Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2016 3:49 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] a theoretical question, with practical application to sonnet 23


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 
  Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2016 1:24 PM
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  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 


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