Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint (Sonnet 23)
by John Milton
Most people agree that "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is one of those rare poems where the speaker and the author of the poem match up. In other words, for once it's totally fair to call Milton himself out as the speaker of the poem.
When he wrote the poem, Milton had recently lost his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, after just a little over a year of marriage, probably due to complications in childbirth. He had also lost his sight six years before that, so that he had never even seen his second wife's face. So it's a pretty safe bet that this poem, an account of a vision of a recently dead wife who seems "wash't from spot of child-bed taint," whose face is hidden behind a veil, and which is also a meditation upon true sight and vision, is autobiographical.
So, just what kind of a speaker is Milton? Well, he's a bit of a smarty-pants, what with all his allusions to classical and contemporary theology. Instead of just describing what his wife looks like when she appears, he uses similes drawn from Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible. His use of the idea of "full sight" in heaven speaks to his knowledge of Christian theology, which describes the afterlife as a place in which humans finally encounter one another and God with perfect vision.
Yep, there's no doubt about it: Milton is also a faithful Christian. As the speaker of this poem, he truly and fully believes that his wife has gone to heaven, and that he will see her there again in the afterlife.
Finally, although throughout most of the poem Milton stays pretty restrained, choosing only to describe his wife, rather than talk about his feelings, the final two lines are full of Milton's longing for her, and the depth of his loss when she is no longer there. Above all, if you remember one thing about this poem, let it be this: the speaker of this poem is someone who is grieving very deeply for the loss of a person he loved.
The Late Espoused Saint
Okay, technically, this poem only has one speaker. And the female figure our speaker imagines most definitely does not talk. Nevertheless, we think she deserves her moment in the sun, so we've chosen here to give you the lowdown on this late lady.
Most people agree that the "late espoused saint" to whom the poem refers is Milton's second wife, Katherine Woodcock, who died after just a little over a year of marriage, and three months after giving birth to a daughter, probably from complications in childbirth. It's important for us to remember, though, that the figure that appears in the poem is not actually the speaker's wife, but a vision of her from beyond the grave. She is very much dead. Sorry.
It's not even clear whether the speaker actually sees her, or just imagines or dreams of seeing her. In fact, she kind of seems like his very own creation, as if she's a projection of all his hopes and feelings about his late wife.
By comparing her to Alcestis, a mythological woman who sacrificed her life for her husband, the speaker implies that his wife's love was self-sacrificing. And his portrayal of her as a woman of the Hebrew Bible, who has been ritually purified, shows he believes her to be pure and virtuous. The love, sweetness, and goodness that shine in her "person," coupled with his labeling of her as a saint, suggests that he views his wife as virtuous and, most importantly, saved—she has made it into heaven. If this wife sounds too good to be true, well, you're not off track. In a way, she is, because she's long gone, and what's left is his dream of her.
Despite the important role that she plays in the poem (she is, after all, one of its main subjects), the late espoused saint is actually very passive throughout. She is "brought" to the speaker like Alcestis snatched from death by force. All of the verbs that describe her are in the passive voice, meaning that she is their object rather than their subject. She is "brought," "vested," "veil'd," an object beheld; she has things done to her, rather than doing them.
That is, until the end of the poem, when she leans down to snuggle up to her hubby. Before she can do this, the poor guy wakes up, prompting her second action: flight. The passivity of the late espoused saint might be this poem's way of signaling that the real subject of the poem is not the vision, but the speaker's experience of it. He creates an idealized version of his wife in his mind; he's the real actor here, not her.