Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Analysis: Form and Meter
Settle in for some good old-fashioned book learnin', because Shmoop's about to drop some knowledge on you.
"Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is what's known as a sonnet. If you want the lowdown on all things sonnet, you should mosey on over to the definition of the term in our literature glossary. For now, we'll just tell you that it's a fourteen-line poem, usually about love of some sort, that uses iambic pentameter and a rhyme scheme.
Here We Go A'Rhyming
This one's a Petrarchan sonnet, which means that the rhyme scheme here goes ABBAABBACDCDCD. What's that? You want us to crack the code? Ahem. Here we go.
In the first eight lines (also known as an octave for all you sonnet-lovers out there), Milton rhymes "saint" with "faint," "taint," and "restraint." And he rhymes "grave" with "gave," "save," and "have" (okay, so that last one's a stretch). Since "saint" ends the first line, it gets the A, and every time that rhyme pops up, it'll get labeled with an A, too. "Grave" ends the second line, so we'll call that one B. So the line's end as follows: "saint" (A), "grave" (B), "gave" (B), and "faint" (A). And that pattern gets repeated for the next four lines: ABBAABBA.
Then, Milton shakes things up a bit in the final six lines (also known as a sestet) by adding some new sounds. "Mind" in line 9 rhymes with "shin'd" (11) and "inclin'd" (13). And "sight" (10) rhymes with "delight" (12) and "night" (14) giving us that old CDCDACD pattern. Simple enough, right?
Here comes the weird part. Sonnets have something called a volta, or turn. Basically, that's just a fancy way of saying that the poem will have a shift somewhere—in tone, emotions, subject matter, or direction. So here's the million dollar question: where's the volta in "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint"? No seriously, where is it?
If the poem is really following the Petrarchan sonnet form, which it seems to be, we'd expect to see it after line 8, because that's where the Italians like their voltas. And maybe we do: after all, line 9 is the point at which the speaker stops describing his vision with similes and starts describing its actual appearance (and not just what it looked like). It's also the point at which the poem moves from a pagan or Hebrew Bible worldview to a firmly Christian one.
Still, the real, big emotional shift of the poem comes right where we'd expect to find it in a Shakespearean sonnet: after line 10. It's a big shift, too. From delighting in his wife's spiritual beauty, the speaker moves to being utterly beyond consolation at her absence. Happiness turns to sadness, light turns to dark; it's a moment that packs a huge emotional punch.
It's also a moment for which the suddenness of the Shakespearean volta works really well. After twelve lines of pretty positive meditation upon the vision of his wife that lulls us into a sense of security, we're hit with a sudden shift in tone that mirrors the suddenness with which the vision disappears. Bam, she's gone, and he's bummed.
Now that you're experts on the form and rhyme of "Methought I Saw…, " let's get you up to speed on the meter. As is the case with most sonnets, this puppy's in iambic pentameter. Each line is divided into five metrical feet. And in iambic pentameter, those feet are iambs, which is a fancy way of saying they sound like this: daDUM. Let's zoom in on the first line to see its meter in action:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Each syllable in boldface and italics is a stressed syllable, or beat. So "Methought" sounds an awful lot like daDUM. And there you have it—that's an iamb. Since there are five of those babies all smushed together in one line, we've got ourselves a line of iambic pentameter.
In this poem, though, perfect meter is more the exception than the rule. If every line sounded all daDUM daDUMmy, we'd get a wee bit bored after a while. And Milton would be wasting his talents. Dude was a master at messing with meter to make meaning. See what we mean by taking a look at the second line:
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave
The accent on the first syllable of the line, "brought" emphasizes the force and power of this verb. (A similar effect happens with "rescu'd" in the first foot of line 4.) When you've got a foot that goes DAdum, instead of daDUM, that's what we call a trochee.
Once you get the hang of figuring out the meter of a line, it's a good idea to go through any poem to find the places where it deviates from its regular meter. What you'll find in "Methought I Saw…" is that there's always a good reason for this deviation. Milton's always up to something. Most of the time, it emphasizes the words that have the greatest force and heightens the emotion of particularly dramatic moments.