Sonnet XXVIII (On His Deceased Wife)
Milton suffered many losses during his life. Two of his wives died giving birth. His first wife, Mary Powell, died on May 5, 1652, three days after giving birth to a daughter, Deborah, while his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he married on November 12, 1656, died of fever on February 3, 1658, four months after giving birth to a daughter, Katherine, who survived her mother by only one month.
These serious events surely prompted Milton to write this sonnet “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint,” which is perhaps the most intensely personal of all his sonnets. However, the problem for many biographers, critics, and other people alike is to identify which wife Milton was describing.
A brief interpretation of the poem details how a man dreams of a woman coming back from the grave in a dream, and when she’s just about to embrace the narrator, he wakes up losing her. Milton refers to Alcestis, a character found in one of the great storeys of Hercules. Hercules was ordered to snatch Alcestis from Hades after her untimely death and bring her back to her husband, Admetus. Like Alcestis, Milton’s “saint” is veiled, but this may be more or less due to his blindness at the time of his second marriage. His blindness, and not having actually seen his late wife, may also be why, instead of explaining the forms in which her beauty shines, or remarking about recognizing her face, he details that it was her characteristics that shone from her, and not actually her physical characteristics. Proof that this may be his second wife is seen in line five, where he reveals how his wife died in labour.
The last two lines are the most significant, not only do they contain the twist seen in many English sonnets, but they display more of Milton’s feelings and how his blindness has influenced him.
He details how when he wakes up from the dream that day gives his night back. This works twice as much as one can perceive it from an emotional level and a physical level, and another from a more metaphysical level. The first is due to the real daybreak that awakens him to the world where his wife is dead. This brings back his “hour” or more accurately called his grief for his latest wife. The spiritual level is more interesting than the blindness of Milton. Since he is blind, the outside world is dark to him, but he has a vision in the subconscious domain of dreams.
Summary of Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint
This sonnet offers an autobiographical dream vision of the poet’s imagined reunion with his second wife, Katherine Woodcock. Most scholars posit Katherine Woodcock as the subject of Milton’s dream in this poem, but some believe that the sonnet memorializes Milton’s first wife, Mary Powell, who died on May 5, 1652— three days after giving birth to a daughter, Deborah while others argue that the poem commemorates both wives.
The sonnet opens with the speaker telling the anonymous interlocutor that he had a dream. A dream he felt he saw his dead wife appears to him. The speaker explains his dream experience by providing three parallels, each described as an allusion.
In the first allusion, the speaker says that his “late espoused saint” seemed to have been brought to him as Alcestis had been brought to Admetus by Heracles in Euripides’ treatment of the well-known Greek myth. Next, the second and third allusions come together in a span that extends from line five through the octave/sestet break to the end of line 9. The second allusion contrasts the dream-wife of the speaker with his imagined view of the ancient Israelite women who endured the purification rites of childbirth prescribed in Leviticus 12. The third part states that she appeared like she imagined she was going to look after he had reunited with her after the resurrection.
This third description is based on allusions to passages in the Pauline epistles and Revelation 16. The speaker tells his interlocutor that the face of his wife was veiled, which alludes to Revelation 7, but the speaker also says that in his dream vision he could see particular attributes of her shining out from her “person” in ways no less delightful than would have been available in a revealed face.
This final, and in many ways climactic portion of the poem’s description of the spouse’s appearance also alludes to two other New Testament passages. One of the things that is interesting about the women referred to in the three allusions is that all of them are veiled. Spitzer pointed out that the veil foreshadows “the perfect heavenly bliss that is to come in the eternal future.”18 Despite all three women being veiled, only the speaker’s beloved shines.
All three of the allusions express God’s grace; however, it becomes most fully revealed in the last stage. After the speaker’s portrayal of his wife, she appears to embrace him. However, just before the two are about to be united, the speaker wakes up from his dream, and then his wife’s “flees” image. Since the speaker builds up the picture of his wife to the kindness, the moment the two are about to embrace is particularly poignant. Upon waking, however, instead of the daylight greeting of the speaker, he explains waking up to a day that brings back the night of his loss. The darkness that the speaker encounters is particularly disconcerting as it is juxtaposed with the light of the shining image of his wife.
Form and Structure
Questions and Answers
1. The mention of Alcestis and Jove is an example of what literary and poetic device?
Ans. The references to figures of classical Greek epics are examples of allusion.
2. Who is the “late espoused saint” of the poem’s first line?
Ans. The poem’s first line introduces the subject of the speaker’s thoughts, his deceased wife.
3. Where does the speaker hope to see his wife again?
Ans. He hopes to see her “Full sight…in Heaven.”
4. What happens to the vision of the speaker’s wife?
Ans. In the dream, his wife extends her arms to embrace him, but as she does, the speaker awakens. The vision of her was only a dream, and so she disappears.
5. What does the “night” at the end of the poem symbolize?
Ans. The speaker’s grief and sorrow for his dead wife is described as his “night.”