Milton's Purgatorio

Article excerpt

Because Milton was preoccupied with the shape of his own poetic career, many of the works he wrote before Paradise Lost reflect his long-term plan to write a great epic and his anxiousness about when and how he would make himself ready to undertake such a monumental task. The poem most often linked to this concern is "Lycidas," the pastoral mode of which gives the work a clearly-defined place in the literary career of a poet determined to emulate Virgil. The principal speaker, "the uncouth swain," clearly reflects both Milton's ambition and his sense of his own limitations in coping with the elegy's "sad occasion dear." (1) While some of Milton's sonnets--particularly "How soon hath time" and "When I consider how my light is spent"--are also clearly linked to the poet's concern over his vocation, that concern is less obviously a factor in "Methought I saw my late espoused saint." (2) Indeed, E. M. W. Tillyard contrasts Milton's sonnet on his dead wife with Donne's self-absorbed "Since she whome I lov'd," noting that Milton focuses on his deceased wife rather than on himself. (3) The deep personal sadness of Milton's sonnet is indisputable; as Barbara Lewalski asserts, "It is one of the great love poems in the language, displaying what is not elsewhere evident: Milton's capacity to love a woman deeply and respond to her love." (4) But the tender and wrenching sonnet by Milton the bereaved husband is also the work of Milton the epic-poet-to-be. The poem's emotive baseline--its grounding in the poet's experience of marital love, desire, and loss--does not preclude its evoking another kind of desire: a longing to fulfill the spiritual vocation that would lead Milton to find divine inspiration in physical blindness. The vision the speaker encounters, and his response to its disappearance, evince the emotional and spiritual state of the poet himself as poet, providing him with an occasion which, like that of "Lycidas," manifests not only personal grief, but poetic aspiration. A reading aware of this dimension in the piece reveals a compelling continuity between the writer of the sonnet as he copes with the loss of his wife, and the poet of Paradise Lost, whose slumbers are visited "nightly" by Urania (Paradise Lost 7.29), as he seeks new heights in the epic trajectory traced by Virgil and Dante.

In the epic tradition Milton sought to continue, male heroes' destinies are often linked to their relationships with female figures: Aeneas must lose Creusa and win Lavinia, Dante owes everything to Beatrice's intervention and guidance, Adam's role as Eve's husband is essential to his fall and to his redemption, and the ambitious narrator of Paradise Lost cannot proceed without the aid of Urania. Feminine beings figure largely in masculine strivings toward epic goals. Of course, Milton's relationships with feminine figures--the flesh-and-blood women whom he married and the celestial Muse whose guidance he sought in writing his epic--are by no means identical to Aeneas' bond with Creusa, Dante's with Beatrice, or Adam's with Eve. To see the differences clearly, however, one must first acknowledge the parallels, parallels Milton himself seems to be exploring in his sonnet on the white-clad beloved who appears to him and reaches out to him after her death. "Methought I saw my late espoused saint" confronts directly the connection (and distinction) between the pursuit of eros and the pursuit of salvation, and it obliquely links both of these quests to the strivings of what "Lycidas" calls "the clear spirit" (70) for whom poetic achievement and divine approval are essentially indistinguishable. (5)

For the speaker of the sonnet, divine presence is directly linked to and yet masked by his vision of a beloved woman. For in line two of the poem, Milton's use of the passive voice obscures the identity of the person or force that escorts the vision-wife. "Methought I saw my late espoused saint / Brought to me," the poet says (1-2); but he does not say who brings her. …