Milton and Shakespeare: A Contrast of Love and Death Through the Sonnet Form

John Milton and William Shakespeare both address topics of love and death in their respective sonnets, but do so in radically different ways. They employ different structural techniques and subjects within the realm of love and death, and in doing so reinforce radically different points, but their differences only reinforce the skill with which both discuss their subjects. Milton’s “Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73” both display a masterful use of the sonnet form because they are able to convey their messages about love, death and the place of humans in the world in such strong, but such radically different, ways.

Milton’s poem structure and carefully-constructed couplet aid in the final message of death and gloom he delivers at the end of the poem. While “Methought I Saw” initially contains relatively pleasant imagery, describing how “love, sweetness, goodness” (11) shines in his wife the couplet immediately reverses any positivity Milton’s audience would have associated with the poem. He describes how, when he went to embrace his wife, “I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night” (14). While the first three quatrains of the poem discuss the beauty and purity of the wife who has been brought back to him “like Alcestis from the grave” (2), the couplet serves as an effective turning point in establishing the poem’s true message: one of death and despair, speaking of unspeakable loss in a jarring departure from the otherwise pleasant imagery of the poem. Through this couplet Milton establishes an effective use of the sonnet form; he is able to quickly turn the message of the poem in a way that surprises readers and changes the earlier meaning entirely.

Shakespeare displays an equally effective use of the sonnet form through his couplet, though his does the total opposite of Milton’s: it establishes a tone of hope in an otherwise gloomy poem. While the first three quatrains depict how “those boughs which shake against the cold // bare ruined choirs” (3-4), and describe how the poem’s speaker is aging and will die soon, the couplet turns from this sadness to state that “this thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong” (13). The first three quatrains of Sonnet 73 are a depiction of slow and eventual death, but upon reaching the quatrain, a sharp change is made, to establish a tone of hope even in the light of death, and of love lasting up to the point of death and after. While Milton and Shakespeare have completely opposite approaches to the use of the couplet, with Milton employing a tone of love up until the couplet, where his tone shifts to a tragic one, and Shakespeare depicting tragedy in his first three quatrains until he turns at the couplet to provide hope and lightheartedness, both effectively use the couplet as intended: to make a dramatic turn at the end of the poem, which surprises its audience and dramatically changes the overall meaning of the poem.

Both Shakespeare and Milton utilize contrasting images of light and darkness to aid in their contrasting images of love and death. When discussing his wife, Milton employs images of whiteness and purity, saying that she is “pale and faint” (4), but “came vested all in white, pure as her mind” (9). He constructs a pure, ethereal image around his wife, one heavily associated with ideas of whiteness and light, and when she finally leaves, he says that “day brought back my night” (14), conjuring images of darkness to aid in his depiction of death. Shakespeare has a similar approach: he employs a transition from light into darkness as a symbol for death, describing how “sunset fadeth in the west // which by and by black night doth take away” (7-8). Both Shakespeare and Milton employ similar images to strengthen their contrast of love and death, and while their ultimate messages are starkly different, their strong usage of the same images builds the effectiveness of their sonnets.

Milton’s description of his lover invokes images of heaven and otherworldliness, while Shakespeare’s images are grounded in the natural world and the home. When discussing the end of his speaker’s life, Shakespeare describes a forest where “yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang” (2), and later describes a fire in a home where “the ashes of his youth doth lie” (10). He attempts to ground the poem in the places where humans are most at place. Shakespeare emphasizes the domesticity of the home, which provides comfort and warmth even in the darkest of times, as the ultimate safe haven for humans. He also discusses the forests of nature, full of trees and birds, as a place where humans are able to feel free even when death hangs over them.

Milton, in contrast, consistently utilizes images of heaven and mythology, referring to his wife as the fictional Alcestis and describing how he “trusts to have // full sight of her in heaven without restraint” (7-8). He creates an extremely idealized version of his wife and associates this perfect love with images of otherworldliness utterly separate from the human realm, and in doing so solidifies a point that both he and Shakespeare make: that humans are only ever at home in the mortal world, and that not only will they be unhappy in other realms, existing in those other realms is completely impossible. Shakespeare explores death as something that will inevitably come to his speaker, and explains that the speaker’s love will love him through the end of his life because they are mortal, but Milton explores what happens when the barriers between life and death are blurred. While his wife may appear to him in a dream, she has to return to the afterlife when he wakes up, because crossing those barriers is impossible. Through their separate depictions of the natural, human world and the mythological world of the afterlife, Shakespeare and Milton both show that it is impossible for humans to be happy, or to even exist, in any dimension other than the one they were intended to exist in. Milton’s wife is dead; she returns to heaven because the dead cannot come back to life. Shakespeare’s speaker knows that he must die because all humans must die. Both poets effectively use the sonnet form to express the strength of boundaries between the human world and the inhuman world, in creating strong images of the radically different interactions of humans with the natural world and the afterlife.

Shakespeare approaches death as inevitable, but something that strengthens love. He explains that “in me thou seest the twilight of such day” (4) and that the fire of his life is “consumed with that which it was nourished by” (12), but also that while he may be dying, his lover stands by him even in the wake of death. In fact, the prospect of his death “makes thy love more strong” (13), his lover being even more loyal to him in his old age, rather than abandoning him in favor of someone young and healthy. Shakespeare argues that the prospect of death makes love stronger in most situations, because people in love know that their love is not forever and that eventually they will die: he states that it is important “To love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (14). While the prospect of death can induce fear and despair, Shakespeare claims that it can strengthen romantic relationships as people attempt to love with the time that they have.

In contrast to Shakespeare’s view of death, Milton discusses the horror and tragedy associated with the death of loved ones. He explains how in his dream his love was “Rescued from death by force” (4), as if death was a physical enemy to be fought. He describes how he hoped to once more “have // full sight of her in heaven without restraint” (7-8), because he has been parted from her by death and wants nothing more than to see her again. While Shakespeare explores how death is an ordinary part of life and can even strengthen love, Milton depicts it as something horrific that pulled a loved one away from him. He does not attempt to reconcile any fears that his audience may have about death, or reassure them that love will persist in the face of death. Instead, he shows that death can destroy love, and, rather than focusing on a dying subject, explores the person who is left behind: he describes that his wife “fled, and day brought back my night” (14). To Milton, the inevitability of death does not matter; he instead focuses on how death harms him and the people close to him. Through their different approaches to the same subjects, Shakespeare and Milton show masterful applications of the sonne. They are both able to discuss two common themes of the sonnet – love and death – in ways that deliver vastly different final messages, but still manage to express deep human emotions in a way that fosters a complex understanding of love and death.

Through their poems Sonnet 73 and Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint, William Shakespeare and John Milton explore the complex themes of love and death in radically different ways. While they utilize rhyme scheme and the sonnet form to deliver different effects, and address love and death in ways that are polar opposites, the strength of their poems lies in the differences between them: their respective depictions of the natural and unnatural worlds solidify the same point about the place of humankind in the world, a point aided in the contrasting images of light and death they employ, and while their dealings with love and death are radically different, they depict emotion, both love and grief, in all of its pure complexity.