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In 1657, John Milton's second wife, Katherine Woodcock, died after just a little over a year of marriage and three months after giving birth to their daughter, who also died. Five years earlier, Milton experienced a similar loss when his first wife died giving birth to his daughter Deborah. Only a few months before that, in February of 1652, Milton lost his sight. So you might say this guy suffers from some seriously rotten luck.
The man who writes "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is one who has suffered a ton of extreme bummers, all in a row, all the while dealing with a physical infirmity—his blindness—which causes him to doubt his ability to carry out the work that is most meaningful to him. Sound familiar? Yeah, this is one of those autobiographical poems.
From the jaws of these apparent defeats, however, Milton snatches "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint," his 1673 poem in which a down-in-the-dumps speaker (who is, most folks agree, Milton himself), describes an emotionally-fraught vision of his recently-deceased wife, whom he still seems head over heels for.
It makes sense, then, that "Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint" is a sonnet. Those little ditties were usually about love and longing and being tragically separated from the object of your oh so awesome affections. In this case, though, Milton takes it to a whole new level by focusing on a separation caused by death. Yep, death.
You'd think that would be plenty heavy for our poet. But Milton doesn't stop there. As he does in all of his poetry, he moves beyond the story of human experience and emotions to reflect upon the religious and philosophical issues that these experiences raise. In his hands, a poem that could be all about his individual grief becomes a more universal meditation on what happens to the soul and body after death. What can we say? He's Milton. Dude's got skills.
If you've ever lost someone you love, whether that loss was the permanent one caused by death or a brief one brought about by the fact that your main squeeze ran out to the store for some oranges, you know what it's like to long desperately to see and hold your loved one once more. And what it's like is rough.
Although everyone responds to loss differently, it's pretty common to have dreams or daydreams in which your wish comes true—your special someone's back from the dead, or back from the store. You can touch them, talk to them, even fight with them if you really want to. The speaker of this poem is having one of those very same dreams. And it's pretty awful.
See, while these dreams are happening, we're over the moon, right? But when we wake up, we have to deal with the loss all over again. But at least, for that brief, fleeting moment, we were happy, and so was the one we lost. But hey, don't take Shmoop's word for it. Go read the poem yourself and see what Milton was talking about.
Methought I Saw a Poem
Get your "Methought" on with this version of the poem, brought to you by the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry Online.
Espoused Saints Abound
Here's another online edition, this one through Dartmouth's Milton Reading Room, with very thorough notes. You'll also find links to some other Milton poems and to scholarly research, if you were hoping to geek out on the guy.
John Milton and Seventeenth-Century Culture
This excellent exhibit from the University of South Carolina's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library places Milton in the context of seventeenth-century British politics and culture, both of which had a huge impact on his poetry. It provides images of some of the first publications of his work and explores Milton's role as a political and religious commentator and pamphleteer involved in the domestic and political controversies of his day. What can we say? The guy would have rocked the vote for sure.
Milton at Poets.org
Looking for a concise bio of your new favorite poet? Here's your page. Plus links to commentary on his work by near-contemporaries, information on related poets, and selected poems.
Everything Sounds Better in an British Accent
So listen to Sonnet 23, introduced by famous Brit, Sir John Gielgud, and read aloud by the awesome Shakespearean actor, Ian Richardson.
"Methought I Heard my Late Espoused Saint"
Scroll down to download the audio file, and own forever this awesome poem. Or as long as your computer's hard drive lasts, that is.
"Alcestis Sacrifices Herself for Admetus"
We know you're dying for a visual to accompany the poem's first simile, so here you go. Take a peek at German painter Heinrich Füger's take on the myth.
A Portrait of Milton
Looking pretty dour if you ask Shmoop. Cheer up, Johnny!
Complete Poems and Essential Prose
A Milton anthology for the obsessed among us.
The Riverside Milton
This one's the standard, scholarly edition, in case any of you are aiming for elbow patches.