Monday, October 30, 2017

John Milton - Sonnet 23

John Milton wrote this poem to his wife Katherine after her death and after his blindness had deprived him of an image of her face. It's truly quite heartbreaking, especially the last line as he wakes from his dream reverie of her to face again the blackness of his waking sight. No further words can express the sadness of this beyond the poem itself.

Sonnet 23

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd 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,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.


I was unaware of this poem till I saw/heard it on Amando Iannucci's truly excellent documentary about Milton from 2009. It is often commented that Satan, not God, gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, but my one quibble with the documentary is at some point the presenter quotes lines from God to (I think) Adam and characterises these as drab and gnomic. I think he missed their significance as they are the most profound and subtle expression of the bestowing of 'free-will' on humanity by the 'deity' found anywhere in English language literature. You can make up your own mind. Here's the documentary.