Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23) Theme of Religion
The speaker of "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" uses three major similes to describe his wife as she appears in his vision: the Greek myth of Alcestis, a woman rescued from the underworld by Hercules; an Israelite woman ritually purified from childbirth according to the laws in Leviticus; and, finally, the woman he believes he'll see again in Heaven. The progression of these similes moves from ancient pagan beliefs, to those of the Hebrew Bible, to Christian beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife, which is Milton's handy way of retelling the history of Christian salvation in the briefest way possible. But the similes also draw comparisons between pagan, Judaic, and Christian belief systems, too. According to the speaker of the poem, the Christian faith is the way to go.
Questions About Religion
- Why does Hercules rescue Alcestis from death? How does his reason compare with Christ's reason for rescuing humanity from Hell?
- How does the Israelite woman mentioned in lines 5-6 achieve "salvation"? How does this method compare with how a Christian achieves salvation, according to the poem?
- What does the speaker believe happens to people after death? How can you tell?
- What does the speaker's wife look like when she appears to him? What does her appearance suggest about the speaker's Christian beliefs about salvation and the afterlife?
Chew on This
The progression of similes is Milton's way of saying that Christian salvation is preferable to all the religious beliefs that came before it.
The speaker's beliefs don't mean much here, because he's not actually seeing his wife, the saint. He has no idea where she has gone after death, so his religious convictions don't hold much water.