In 1657, John Milton's second wife, Katherine Woodcock, died after just a little over a year of marriage and three months after giving birth to their daughter, who also died. Five years earlier, Milton experienced a similar loss when his first wife died giving birth to his daughter Deborah. Only a few months before that, in February of 1652, Milton lost his sight. So you might say this guy suffers from some seriously rotten luck.
The man who writes "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is one who has suffered a ton of extreme bummers, all in a row, all the while dealing with a physical infirmity—his blindness—which causes him to doubt his ability to carry out the work that is most meaningful to him. Sound familiar? Yeah, this is one of those autobiographical poems.
From the jaws of these apparent defeats, however, Milton snatches "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint," his 1673 poem in which a down-in-the-dumps speaker (who is, most folks agree, Milton himself), describes an emotionally-fraught vision of his recently-deceased wife, whom he still seems head over heels for.
It makes sense, then, that "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is a sonnet. Those little ditties were usually about love and longing and being tragically separated from the object of your oh so awesome affections. In this case, though, Milton takes it to a whole new level by focusing on a separation caused by death. Yep, death.
You'd think that would be plenty heavy for our poet. But Milton doesn't stop there. As he does in all of his poetry, he moves beyond the story of human experience and emotions to reflect upon the religious and philosophical issues that these experiences raise. In his hands, a poem that could be all about his individual grief becomes a more universal meditation on what happens to the soul and body after death. What can we say? He's Milton. Dude's got skills.
If you've ever lost someone you love, whether that loss was the permanent one caused by death or a brief one brought about by the fact that your main squeeze ran out to the store for some oranges, you know what it's like to long desperately to see and hold your loved one once more. And what it's like is rough.
Although everyone responds to loss differently, it's pretty common to have dreams or daydreams in which your wish comes true—your special someone's back from the dead, or back from the store. You can touch them, talk to them, even fight with them if you really want to. The speaker of this poem is having one of those very same dreams. And it's pretty awful.
See, while these dreams are happening, we're over the moon, right? But when we wake up, we have to deal with the loss all over again. But at least, for that brief, fleeting moment, we were happy, and so was the one we lost. But hey, don't take Shmoop's word for it. Go read the poem yourself and see what Milton was talking about.