A POSTSTRUCTURALIST ANALYSIS OF MILTON’S SONNET 19
Semantic, Semiotic, and Syntactical Approaches
Theories of literary criticism may approach a text from different, often conflicting, perspectives. This study set out to determine whether and, if so, to what extent, the perspective of poststructuralism, a successor literary theory to structuralism, may inform our understanding of the text of John Milton’s Sonnet 19, “When I consider how my light is spent,” sometimes referred to as “On His Blindness.” The study examined by close reading the semantic, semiotic, and syntactical tools of Milton’s language to make that determination. While those tools may be useful in the examination of any particular text, and of any genre, they were found to be especially appropriate to the analysis of an English poem, given the narrator’s freedom from the traditional constraints of the language, including the order of words and phrases, their common meaning, and the symbols embedded in a poetic narrative. What are the recognizable signs in the sonnet, and did Milton intentionally leave those signs as a kind of “trail of breadcrumbs” for us to follow, or are they revealed only by the application of some modern theory of literary criticism? Poststructuralism offers a frame within which that freedom may be most readily realized, and it proved useful in attaining semantic, semiotic, and syntactical insights into Sonnet 19 beyond those commonly found in the literature. There is not just one meaning in the sonnet, not just the meaning intended by the author. Poststructuralist analysis suggests that there are as many meanings as there are readers of the poem.