Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Lines 5-9 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Mine, as whom wash't from spot of child-bed taint,
Purification in the old law did save,
- Now the speaker compares his dead wife as she appears in the vision to women of the Hebrew Bible, or Leviticus 12, to be precise. Back then, childbirth was considered unclean, so women had to undergo purification rituals.
- So this simile puts us squarely back in a Judeo-Christian context because it's a biblical allusion. Sure, his wife is like Alcestis, but she's also like these other women, too.
- Most people think agree that Milton is the speaker of this poem, and that it refers to his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, who died in childbirth after less than a year of marriage. Often, they'll cite Milton's reference to "child-bed taint" as proof to back up their claims.
- Although the reference to the "spot of child-bed taint" may literally refer to the childbed of Milton's wife, it's also a common symbol for sin. And that makes sense, when you add the word "purification" to the mix. That purification might represent a Christian forgiveness for sins.
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.
- Now the speaker describes his wife as someone he hopes to see "once more." He's making a connection, but also pointing to a contrast between the wholly purified "saint" and the woman he loved and knew on earth. His wife was once quite human, but now she's gone to heaven and has become a saint.
- The speaker says that he trusts in the fact that he'll be able to see his wife in heaven. This isn't some dumb, foolish hope, either. He totally believes it.
- The speaker's anticipation of the "full sight" of his wife in heaven hits close to home for readers in the know. After all, the speaker could be Milton, and once we remember he was blind, we realize just how meaningful this line is. He's anticipating the fact that in heaven, his physical infirmity will be wiped away, much like the "spot of child-bed taint" from line 5. In other words, when he meets his wife again, he'll be purified, like her.
- Moving away from the similes of lines 2-8, the speaker returns in line 9 to the actual vision of his wife, describing her as "vested," or dressed, in "white, pure as her mind." Enough with the comparisons—let's get down to the actual vision.
- The color white symbolizes Christian purity, or freedom from sin. That's a fitting echo of the description of the woman in the vision as one purified of "taint." This saint is blessed in heaven. Of course she's decked out in white.
- The speaker says his wife appears dressed in "white, pure as her mind." In other words, her outer appearance perfectly matches her inner purity. Which reminds us that our speaker clearly sees heaven as a place where physical imperfections are wiped away, and where the body becomes as perfect as the soul.