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John Milton

Roger van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady

< Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint >

Poems (1673, 65)
composed 1658 (50)

Methought I saw my late espousèd saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of childbed taint,
Pur'fication in the old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in heav'n without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veil'd, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shin'd
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she inclined
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night. 

Saint : My late espousèd saint : Katherine Woodcock, Milton’s second wife, who had died shortly after giving birth to a baby boy. Milton had never in fact seen her, as he had gone blind before their first meeting.  Alcestis : Heracles went into the underworld and wrestled with death to bring Alcestis, the wife of King Admetus, back from the dead.  Jove’s great son : Heracles.  Purification in the old Law :  Leviticus 12, 2-4  2. If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean.   3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.   4 And she shall continue in the blood of purification three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.   The strictures with regard to a female child were more elaborate. Milton was at least spared the necessity of sacrificing a goat. He is here presumably congratulating himself on having done everything necessary before she died to secure her entrance into heaven, where he is confident about meeting her again in due course.


So why say 'Heracles' when you can say 'Jove's great son'? I suppose the choice revolves around the desire to involve the reader in the narrative. The reader, in this case, has to reflect as to who was Jove's great son, and unravel the meaning. He invests time and energy into the process of reading, solves at least one of the puzzles of the poem, and therefore it becomes, in part at least, his poem.

The verb 'Came' at the beginning of line nine has its subject at the beginning of line five ('Mine'). The syntax of 'as whom wash'd from spot' is difficult, but the meaning is clear.

The poem is, of course, very neatly packaged with its tight rhyme scheme and ten syllables per line (so long as we drop one of the 'i's' of 'purification'). The meanings are more awkward.

The content splits conveniently between groups of four lines, with the first four lines concerned with a comparison with the story of Admetus, Alcestis and Heracles, which story is recounted by Euripides (in the play Alcestis). The plot revolves around the fact that Heracles reacts as he does (in fetching Alcestis back from the dead) because Admetus respects the rules of hospitality despite the fact that his wife (Alcestis) has just died.

The second four lines concern themselves with biblical rules concerning 'childbed taint' and 'purification'. The implication here is that there is no great divide between body and spirit, that affairs of the body affect the spirit, and vice versa, contrary to much Christian dogma which has attempted to separate the two, seeing the body as unclean. Milton accepts that the body may be unclean, but here insists that purification may be had. The final line of these four emphasises the physical reality of their reunion, promising 'Full sight of her in heav'n without restraint', perhaps also an allusion to Milton's own blindness, but clearly and primarily an indication that Milton sees heavenly love encompassing physical love.

The succeeding four lines concern themselves with the vision itself, a personal experience of the radiance of a truly lovely, spiritual being, presumably a personal experience of some ecstatic religious intensity, if not, a very mischievous deceit.

The final couplet gives a complete and very satisfying denouement. The vision departs on waking, the implication being that the living cannot participate in the joys of heaven, but must soldier on in this world, coping with the everyday problems that occur, such as, in Milton's case, blindness: 'day brought back my night'.

External links:

Lengthy thesis on this poem with some interesting, sometimes erroneous suggestions about readings, but nevertheless very helpful

Another analysis with some interesting ideas


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