when I was supposed to write a paper on Milton’s “Sonnet 19” and George Herbert’s “The Collar.” We had two textbooks: The Major Works and Seventeenth Century British Poetry, and this was in the innocent time of my life when I believed that English poets always helpfully numbered all their sonnets (cue dangerous foreshadowing).
METHOUGHT I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veil’d; yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d; she fled; and day brought back my night.
I do remember reading this and thinking, “huh, that’s an odd pairing.” I thought it a few more times as I wrote about the narrator’s religious darkness (“he probably meant a more literal darkness”), and about the “bride of faith” ( “there don’t seem to be any images to support this interpretation”). Perhaps if the paper had involved secondary sources I would have discovered my error in time…
Obviously, I’d used the wrong book: Sonnet 19 in the Orgel edition was not the same Sonnet 19 in the Norton. The prof offered me a B, which I refused on the grounds that I hadn’t done the assignment, and, in what may seem an act of responsibility and stoicism, I elected to rewrite the paper. I wasn’t too courageous though: to avoid the humiliation of confronting (for another seven pages) the true sophistry of my first interpretation, I wrote the second paper on an entirely different topic and set of poems.
What scholarly wisdom did I glean from this experience? First, always cross- and counter-reference sources; also, never force a reading. Finally, John Milton is a subtle and dangerous man.
Never ever trust John Milton. Wish him happy birthday, nevertheless.
Happy 400th, John!
9 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines