[Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet, installment 5, "mine"

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Sat Apr 23 11:39:52 EDT 2016


I would defend Milton against your . . . perverseness (said with tongue in cheek) by pointing out that he was writing, not in my 21st century English class (where even contemporary analogies seem to be problematic), but for himself, in this instance (exploring, I think, a phenomenon he found at once exciting and distressing) and at a time and in a place where his "fit audience" contemporaries were as steeped in classical mythology and the Bible as he was. Exegetes habitually respond to questions about biblical stories by pointing out that the scriptural scribes skipped a lot of the details in their accounts of this or that event because they were common knowledge--for example, if the earth was peopled only by Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Seth, and Cain slew Abel--where did the women come from whom Cain and Seth married to engender the rest of us? Today, we might look at Sonnet 23 and ask, "Alcestis? Alcestis who??"--but the reference and the parallels (and anti-parallels) would have been immediately available to Milton's reader, as perhaps an allusion to post-lapsarian Eve and Pandora might be to you and me. (Before the Fall, at the time to which the passage you quoted from PL refers, it's almost insulting--chauvinistic!--to compare Eve to Pandora--so Milton is careful to explain: "I'm not talking about Pandora as the cause of all our woe--I mean Pandora as the beloved of Olympus, showered with blessings, before they gave her that bloody box!")

Thus: "Alcestis is dead because she gave her life for her husband, and brought back from the grave by Jove's great son Herakles by brute force, and is pale and faint,  whereas Katherine is dead because she gave her life bringing my child into the world, and has been brought back from the grave by Christ, God's great Son by mercy, and is free of all blemishes and taints, as witnessed by the fact that she is "vested all in white, pure as her mind," and though her face is veiled, "Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd / So clear, as in no face with more delight."

I don't see the same problem that you do, Greg.

As I said in one of my earliest posts in this thread, in this particular instance, I don't think Milton is as concerned with the technical excellence of the sonnet (the vehicle) as he is with conveying the dark wonder he is experiencing as a result of his experience (the tenor). It is one of the few, and perhaps the most revealing and touching revelations of Milton the man, of his human frailty, that we have, in the entire canon. Forgive my sentimentality, but it's his heart holding the pen, this time--not his head.

Best to all,

Carol Barton 




From: Gregory Machacek 
Sent: Saturday, April 23, 2016 10:55 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet, installment 5, "mine"


What you sketch below, Carol, is certainly a meaningful contrast that one can generate from the material that Milton puts into his sonnet, and in fact, I have little doubt that it is the contrast that Milton would like for us to mentally assemble from his material, and indeed that it is in some ways, as you say, an obvious contrast to be made between the case of Alcestis and the case of (let's say) Katherine.  But it's not what Milton says.  It would make for a better sonnet if actually made the comparison that you present him as making.

Here's Miton when he's effectively managing a comparison and contrast simile: 

What day the genial Angel to our sire 

Brought her in naked beauty more adorned, 

More lovely, than Pandora, whom the Gods 

Endowed with all their gifts, and O! too like 

In sad event, when to the unwiser son 

Of Japhet brought by Hermes, she ensnared 

Mankind with her fair looks, to be avenged 

On him who had stole Jove's authentick fire. 



1) For each of the terms in the comparison, we've got a word that actually appears in the passage (her, Pandora), words of a sort that can be contrasted (a pronoun and a proper name), and that stand as the foundation for any other assertions that are going to be made of either of them.  What are your two contrast words? Alcestis and mine, a proper noun and a possessive pronoun--or Alcestis and an understood [her]. 2) The Pandora passage says directly what are the points of comparison (lovely, adorned, like in sad event) and what are the points of contrast:  more lovely, more adorned.  By contrast, to get anything about [mywife] that even could compare to something in Alcestis-any stated thing, not just a notion that you derive out of what is stated-one has to slog through, and assign some meaning to, "as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint" at least.  So is that it?  Is Milton's wife washederfromspotofchildbedtaint than Alcestis?  After the "mine," Milton starts asserting some things about the dream image of his wife, but they're not the kinds of things, the kinds of phrases, that can serve as points of comparison with anything he'd said while describing Alcestis.  True, all of the stuff on one side of the "mine" can be theologically contrasted with all of the stuff on the other side of the "mine," just as you do.  But that's what's happening:  you are comparing, on some level outside the poem, notions toward wich the words in the poem gesture.  You are not reading a poem that itself indicates how thing A and thing B are different from one another. 3)  The Pandora passage doesn't leave the reader to weave in a set of theological reflections from outside what is stated in the poem (your agape, e.g.) in order to provide the materials for the contrast.  It provides some things that one can directly compare to one another:  loveliness, adornedness.  (Maybe this is just another way of saying (2).)

So, if Milton had said "mine, rescued by agape" we'd have a phrase in the poem that could serve as a contrast with the phrase "rescued by force."

Leave aside for a second the Alcestis/mine disconnect.  Just fill in these blanks with a word "Alcestis is _______________, whereas Katherine is ________________."  Or fill in the blanks with parallel short phrases (from the poem).  Or fill in the blanks with parallel long phrases.  I can do it for Pandora:  Pandora is lovely, whereas Eve is more lovely.

Milton at his best, and sonnets at their best, start by saying what they mean, and then are suggestive beyond that foundational meaning.  You're letting Milton get away with stuff you wouldn't accept in a freshman essay!  If a student gave you an essay saying "Tommy's mom is named Doris, and my mom is named Sharon.  Doris makes great lasagna, whereas mine is of the sort who dances well." you'd tell that student to revise.  Get your terms of comparison parallel!; either Doris and Sharon or Tommy's mom and mine.  Spell out to me more precisely what you regard as the comparison between lasagna and dancing!  I know the comparison is somehow meaningful to you, but your job is to make it meaningful to your reader. Why say your mom is "of the sort who dances well"? Just crisply compare her dancing to Doris' lasagna-making.

Milton's poem is so good a meaning-receptacle that you've stopped even bothering to attend to your experience of it as a song-ette, which calls for some minimal level of surface clarity.

Though worlds judge me perverse . . .


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: "Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM" 
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
Date: 04/22/2016 04:41PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet, installment 5, "mine"


I think you're being perverse in this instance, Greg (no insult intended), because the contrast seems obvious to me, and turns on the implicit contrast of the preceding stanza:

It's a compare and contrast simile--

My late espoused saint is like " Alcestis [brought] from the grave," and just as "Joves great son [her] to her glad Husband gave," Christ rescued and restored her to me, not "Rescu'd from death by force though pale and faint," but rescued by agape, whole and perfect, "washt from spot of child-bed taint, Purification in the old Law," and saved by the sacrifice of the Son--wherefore "as such, . . .  came vested all in white" (and so on).

>From that perspective, I suppose the veiling could be to signify that, saved and purified, she is a bride of Christ--but as she is Milton's wife, that would just further complicate the poem, unnecessarily. I think it's pretty settled that she's veiled because her blind spouse has never actually seen her face.

Best to all,

Carol Barton



From: Gregory Machacek 
Sent: Friday, April 22, 2016 4:12 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet, installment 5, "mine"


I have three beefs against "Mine."  You'll get two of them in this post.  You'll also get (as looks like is becoming part of my method) one question that is a sincere question, i.e. which isn't designed simply to point to a fault, but is an authentic invitation for you to explain to me how you construe the poem.   (The "save" question worked that way, and did elicit a good answer (though an answer not without attendant problems of its own)).

"Mine" would seem intended to introduce some strong contrast between Alcestis and Milton's late espoused saint.  It comes at a major transition point-start of the second quatrain.  And prosodically, there's a reversal of stress that would seem to assign it contrastive vocal emphasis:  by contrast with Admetus' wife, who was thus and such, mine was so and so. 

1) The poem does not contain, however, the simple, go-to possessive pronoun that would naturally serve as the solid point of opposition for this contrastive "mine," namely "his."  In fact, working from the material the poem does give us, we have elaborately to construct what ought to serve as the balancing thought for "my wife, by contrast" in the following roundabout formulation:  "my wife by contrast with Alcestis's glad husband's wife."  The "mine" wants a solid contrasting pronoun on which to plant its foot (Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure), and it steps into a bog instead.

2) Here's the sincere question:  what do you take the actual contrast itself as being?  To me it seems there are two options, both of them bad.  A) by contrast with Admetus' wife, who was pale and faint, mine came dressed in white.  As a contrast, that's underwheming.  or B) by contrast with Admetus' wife, who was pale and faint, mine came dressed in white as one whom, washed from spot of child-bed taint, purification in the old law did save and such as yet once more I trust to have full sight of her in heaven without restraint.  As a contrast, that's muddy.

--Y'all's grudging concession:  Yeah, now that I look at it, by placement and prosodic emphasis "mine" promises a strong contrast, and nothing in the poem crisply does in fact provide that contrast.

(By the way, these scripted concessions are designed 1) to summarize how much of the critical case I've made so far and 2) to spur your rebuttals, when you have them.  But they are not designed as a rhetorical stratagem by which everyone who does not object will be counted in my camp.  The silent majority will not be assumed to stand with Grump.  I have a positive obligation to win adherents.  (So if I ever do make sense, please don't hesitate to say so!)).


Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College 


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