Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sonnet "On His Blindness," by John Milton

Sonnet  "On His Blindness," by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best                         
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly.  Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite. 

Though blind when he composed his greatest poetry, John Milton could think in iambic pentameter. Over a period of four to five years he dictated to one or another of his daughters the epic poem Paradise Lost. A shorter sequel, Paradise Regained, and the drama Samson Agonistes followed soon after. Ludwig van Beethoven, stone deaf, wrote and orchestrated symphonies he could hear only in his mind. One wonders if Michelangelo, sightless, could have sculpted the Pieta and the statue of David using only his hands to feel the marble he was shaping to exquisite perfection.

It seems false modesty when, in the sonnet "On His Blindness," Milton refers to his genius and virtuosity as mere talent. But that would be to restrict the galaxies of meaning revolving around the word "talent" and other deceptively ordinary words such as "prevent" and "wait."

The poem commences with the poet's consideration of the second half of his life, which will be spent in darkness. He began to lose his sight in his early 30s. Doctors warned him against persisting in the eye-straining labor of writing pamphlets and public statements in defense and support of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime in which he served as Latin Secretary, a post similar to our Secretary of State. Milton chose to continue. He went totally blind in 1651 at age 43.

The man did not have an easy life. Milton's first wife, 17-year-old Mary Powell, fled to her parents' home immediately after the marriage ceremony and stayed there for several years. Milton managed a reconciliation, and Mary bore him three daughters and a son who died in infancy. She died three days after the birth of the third daughter.

He sought child-rearing aid from his mother-in-law, a woman who strongly disliked him. The daughters also found him overbearing and tyrannical. The second wife Milton married had little time to win over her stepdaughters, since she died in childbirth within two years.


In this sonnet, the speaker meditates on the fact that he has become blind (Milton himself was blind when he wrote this). He expresses his frustration at being prevented by his disability from serving God as well as he desires to. He is answered by "Patience," who tells him that God has many who hurry to do his bidding, and does not really need man’s work. Rather, what is valued is the ability to bear God’s "mild yoke," to tolerate whatever God asks faithfully and without complaint. As the famous last line sums it up, "They also serve who only stand and wait."

This poem presents a carefully reasoned argument, on the basis of Christian faith, for the acceptance of physical impairment. The speaker learns that, rather than being an obstacle to his fulfillment of God’s work for him, his blindness is a part of that work, and that his achievement lies in living patiently with it. (Milton himself went on to write his twelve-book epic poem, "Paradise Lost," after becoming blind.)

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