Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Lines 10-14 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- Before we get down to the nitty gritty, we'll give you the gist of these lines. Basically, our speaker's saying that despite the fact that his wife's face is veiled, he can still see love, sweetness, and goodness in it.
- In any case, our speaker still can't see her completely. He doesn't have the "full sight" that he believes he'll have in heaven. So we might think of this image as a sad reminder that our poor guy's still stuck on earth, separated from his wife.
- But the image also reminds us of the myth of Alcestis, who wore a veil when she returned from the grave.
- And—yep, this image is a triple threat—veiling also alludes to the idea of the hidden meanings of Scripture. Writers sometimes portray such meanings as being veiled until the end times, in which their full meaning will at last become fully visible to the faithful.
- In this case, this might suggest that though he can't quite see his wife's face now, he knows what it's saying, and he'll see it completely when he finally gets to heaven. In other words, despite the veil on her face, the speaker's "fancied sight" enables him to see certain qualities in his wife that might not be all that obvious to the average Joe.
- Why can't the average Joe see those qualities? Well, probably because he's using his "fancied sight." In other words, he's seeing these things in his imagination—not in reality. Remember, he's not actually seeing his wife in any real way. He's using his imagination.
- It's in keeping with this imaginative vision, then, that the qualities he can see in his wife aren't physical attributes, but interior ones—love, sweetness, and goodness. Those aren't things you can see with your actual eyes, anyways, so of course he'd have to use his fancied sight.
- Love, sweetness, and goodness "shine" in her person, like some sort of light radiating out of her body. Of course using light imagery to describe spiritual perfection is common in Christian culture.
- But this poem's focus on sight and vision make it even more significant. The shininess of his wife's virtues actually helps the speaker to see her more clearly. How convenient.
- In fact, the brightness of his wife's spiritual qualities provides so much clarity for the speaker that he describes them as "so clear as in no face with more delight."
- With "as in no face with more delight," the speaker indicates that being able to see the spiritual qualities of the "person" is more valuable than being able to see their actual physical features. Sure, Milton may have been blind, but he could still see a great deal.
But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.
- Ah, we come to it at last—the final two lines of the poem. And boy, do they pack a punch.
- The speaker's long lost lady love-turned-vision leans down to give her man a hug. And then—oops!—he wakes up, just in time to ruin everything, as the vision disappears.
- If you think about it, the wife's attempt to embrace her husband is her first real activity in the poem. The rest of the time, she's just been standing there, all passive-like. That means it's probably a good idea to really dig into this image, to see what we can make of it.
- Here goes. First, saying that his wife "inclined" to embrace him means that she's positioned above the guy. Maybe the speaker's being literal here, saying that his wife is standing over his prone, sleeping body. But he could also be being figurative here, because she exists on a higher spiritual plane than he does. The lady's in heaven, after all.
- Whatever the case may be, when she leans down to him, our speaker wakes up, which drives the point home that she was never really there in the first place. The moment he wakes up, she flees. Or rather, the vision of her goes poof!
- And as she flees, the sunshine and happiness she brought with her goes up in smoke, too. It's night again, and our speaker is forced to remember that his wife is very, very gone. One possible interpretation of these lines is that once the husband and wife try to embrace, it's all getting a bit too real. In other words, the vision is trying to move out of the spiritual realm and into the physical one, which is impossible, so it dissolves.
- Before we wrap things up, though, let's take a closer look at line 14. It's a paradox, because day actually brings about night. Weird, right? In any case, that paradox reminds us that night can be a time of darkness and sorrow, while day is a time of hope and joy.
- Because Milton was blind and we assume him to be the speaker of the poem, "day brought back my night" also has a literal sense: day brings back the "night," or darkness, of his blindness.
- To make a long story short, this poem ends on a bit of a sad note. Okay a huge honking sad note. The vision's gone, and our man's on his own again, left to mourn his saintly wife who's gone and ditched him for heaven.