Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Lines 1-4 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me […]
- The speaker introduces the subject of the poem. This one's all about a vision he had of his dead wife.
- The repetition of words referring to the speaker—"me," "I," "my, "to me"—tells us that the subject of this poem isn't just this vision of a dead woman, but the speaker's experience of that vision.
- The phrase "late espoused saint," has two possible meanings. It might mean "the good, pious woman I married who is now 'late,' or dead." It could also mean, "the good, pious saint (a person now in heaven) I lately espoused (recently married)." This last meaning makes the situation even more tragic, since the speaker has lost a wife very early in their marriage. So we know right off the bat that this poem is not a happy one.
- And his referring to his wife as a "saint" tells us one thing for sure: the speaker comes from a Christian worldview. He thinks of his wife in this context of heaven and salvation.
- In line 2, the poem uses enjambment to introduce the idea that the vision of the saint doesn't just appear to the speaker, but is actually "brought" to him by someone or something. You might expect a vision to just appear, but this one's brought.
- The use of the verb "brought" to describe the speaker's vision emphasizes two things: (1) this guy's playing a passive role in this whole shebang. He's just sitting there when his wife is brought to him. Which brings us to (2) his wife's pretty passive, too. She's simply being carried along by whatever it is that's conjuring her up before her hubby.
- And before we move on to the rest of the poem, check out that first line. It's got ten syllables, and seems to (generally) follow a daDUM daDUM rhythm. You know what that means, dear Shmoopers? This puppy's in iambic pentameter. Check out our take on "Form and Meter" for more.
[…] like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
- The speaker compares his late espoused saint to Alcestis in a simile. For those not in the know, Alcestis was a character in Greek mythology who died in her husband's place and was brought back from the underworld by Hercules, son of Zeus (a.k.a. "Jove").
- So what's a pagan allusion doing in a poem about a saint?
- Well, Plato's Symposium, an important work of classical philosophy with which Milton was familiar, refers to Alcestis's decision to die for her husband as an example of the highest form of love. So basically, our speaker is implying that his dead wife may have somehow sacrificed herself for him.
- Saying that his wife has come "from the grave" contrasts quite a bit with the description of her as a "saint" in the first line. Saints live on in heaven, but only dead, lifeless bodies come "from the grave." It seems like our poor speaker is struggling with two different ideas about what happens to people after death.
- Just as the vision of the speaker's wife is "brought" to him in line 2, here Alcestis is brought to her husband by Hercules. In both cases, the woman is a totally passive object, a gift of sorts.
- Line 3 contains a lot more accented syllables in a row than we normally expect in a line of iambic pentameter, giving this line a "heavy" or stressed feel. But hey, doesn't that make perfect sense? After all, there's some heavy stuff going on, what with Jove's gift of Alcestis to her husband.
Rescu'd from death by force though pale and faint.
- Continuing the comparison of his late wife to Alcestis, the speaker describes this mythical Greek woman as "rescu'd from death by force," telling us that he considers his vision of his wife to be a similar kind of rescue—a resurrection of sorts.
- Despite her rescue from death, Alcestis is "pale and faint," just as a vision of a dead person might seem. She is, technically speaking, a ghost after all.
- Here's a fun little metrical side note: on the first foot of this line, the accent occurs on the first syllable instead of on the second as we normally expect in iambic pentameter. In other words, it sounds like DAdum, instead of daDUM. This placement puts the emphasis on the rescue as the most important part of the line, like a big ol' red flag. And when a foot is flipped like that—when an iamb gets all turned around—we call it a trochee instead.
- One more note on form before we're on our merry way. This line ends with the word "faint," which just so happens to rhyme with "saint." And "gave" and "grave" rhyme, too. That means we've got a rhyme scheme of ABBA.
- And since this poem is written in iambic pentameter, and we know it's fourteen lines long, we can go ahead and assume that this guy's a Petrarchan sonnet. Nifty, no? Check out "Form and Meter" for more.