Critics Overview on Milton's On His Blindness

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Critical Overview

      Milton is known as one of the very greatest and most influential English poets, ranking with Chaucer and Shakespeare. He wrote both poetry and prose, and in poetry wrote pastoral, elegy, epic, drama, sonnet, and other kinds. His most famous and influential work is the epic Paradise IMSI, which has been at the center of English literary criticism since Milton's day, His sonnets have received less critical attention. Lord Macaulay, unusual in valuing the sonnets highly, wrote in Critical Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays that "traces ... of the peculiar character of Milton may be found in all his works; but it is most strongly displayed in the Sonnets, Those remarkable poems have been undervalued ..." Macaulay links the sonnets firmly to Milton's life and character, a view which would not be a distortion of this particular sonnet.

      "Sonnet 16" in particular, however, has received a fair amount of critical discussion, much of it disputing the date of composition A. S. P. Woodhouse and Douglas Bush, in A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton summarize several dozen essays on this poem as follows; it is evident that all interpretations recognize that the sonnet commences from a mood of depression, frustration, even impatience (since Patience has to intervene), and that the counsel of Patience is submission: the remaining lines reinforce this counsel or add an entirely new conception ... here, as in "Sonnet 7 form His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three / the problem posed is not so much resolved as lifted to a plane where self-regarding thoughts become irrelevant."

      Helen Keller's autobiography. The Story of my Life (1903) is a classic account of how an individual overcame extreme physical handicaps-blindness and deafness to lead an inspiring, meaningful life.

      Christy Brown's My Left Foot (1954; made into a film 1989) is the autobiography of a man severely crippled by cerebral palsy who manages with the use of only his left foot to become a celebrated writer and artist.

      John Milton treats blindness further in his epic poem. Samson Agonistes (1671). The work describes the famous hero of the Israelites who is captured by the enemies of his people, imprisoned, and blinded.

      Milton's essay Areopagitica (1644) is his most famous prose piece. It is a passionate defense of free speech that has influenced civil libertarians up to this day.

Criticism of David Kelly

      David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County, as well as the faculty advisor and co-founder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College, in the following essay, Kelly provides biographical information about Milton to help modern readers approach Milton's poem from three centuries ago.

Is "Sonnet 16" a good thing to read?

      There is no question that, when literary figures are ranked in order of their all-time importance, John Milton's name always appears close to the top of the list of English poets. The question often raised by modern students is whether the standards that are used to put him in such a high ranking are relevant to today's fast-paced world. Sure, he can gracefully pull a 180-degree turn in the direction of his thought when going from the octave to the sestet of an Italian sonnet, but what does that matter in a world where a surprise gunshot in a film such as Pulp Fiction can alter the direction of the story in an instant, or where the quick-cutting of music videos has trained our brains to expect a new viewpoint every 3.7 seconds? Students are right to wonder whether Milton's reputation is based upon his understanding of the world around us, or if he is assigned reading because English professors had to suffer through understanding what he meant when they were students, and they now want to sadistically pass their suffering along. Milton is not easy to read and understand: three centuries have added the problem of outdated word usage to the twists that he intentionally gave the language to keep his readers on their toes, and his subject matter is purposely tangled, being chosen to show how reality contradicts itself It only makes sense that we would study difficult things, since obvious.

      "As opposed to the universal acclaim that Milton receives as a poet, his sonnets have garnered uneven support, running from critics who say they were great or just good to those who consider them really pretty impossible."

      Tilings, by definition, do not need to be studied in order to be appreciated. With so much to study in the modem world, a person taking classes at a high school or college - who, based on averages, will be neither blind nor deeply religious — will want to know that the effort they are pulling toward understanding a poem such as "On His Blindness" will end up being worth the investment.

      The first way to approach such a question is to consider the reputation that the poet brings with him. looking for signs that Milton's popularity in the field of literature is more of a matter of reputation than of relevance. After Shakespeare, there is probably no English poet who has stronger acceptance as a master of his art. It is no shame to Milton that he can only, in the best evaluations, come in second place. In fact, it is practically inevitable: Shakespeare is not really judged by literary critics so much as he is set aside and used as the standard for measuring the effectiveness of other poets; no one could ever unseat him from the number one position. Even being considered among the top few poets is an astounding feat for Milton, considering the millions of poets who have written since his death in 1674. Skeptics may see this as a plot of the literary establishment to cany on the status quo, as if generations of thinkers would fail to produce any values other than what they were taught in school. The simple law of averages tells us that if Milton's thinking were narrow or his use of words was just showy and without substance, someone would have made an argument against him so strong that lazy-minded traditionalists would find it easier to drop him from the textbooks than defend him.

      Milton's poetic reputation is based on the strength of his longer works, the epics Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and the poetic drama Samson Agonistes, If it were not for theses works, we probably would not study "Sonnet 16" today, since there certainly have been better English-language sonnet poets to capture our attention. As opposed to the universal acclaim that Milton receives as a poet, his sonnets have garnered uneven support, running from critics who say they were great or just good to those who consider them really pretty terrible. Two hundred ears ago, Samuel Johnson, the famed literary wit whose biography has provided the world with hundreds of well-known, erudite one-liners, explained to another writer how Milton could write so well in the larger forms and produce such poor shorter poems: "Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but he could not carve heads on cherry-stones." Even a skeptic can recognize the skill and concentration that went into creating "Sonnet 16," which is considered one of Milton's best sonnets. At the same time, however, we are allowed to question whether this poem is studied today precisely because of the fast pace of modern life. If students are being given this sonnet to make up for reading works by Milton that truly deserve attention, then its place in literary texts is more of a Lifetime Achievement Award for the poet than an honor that the poem itself has earned.

      In some respects, Milton's life was indeed the sort that we think a poet ought to have although it could be argued that, because his talent has secured his place in the textbooks, we have only kept the details of his life that befit a poetic legend. One seldom reads about his childhood and superb education without seeing a reference to the fact that at age 16, at Christ's College, Cambridge, his nickname was "The Lady of Christ's." In other walks of life, a detail like this might be discreetly left out by biographers, but as a poet, it is presented as testimony to Milton's sensitivity and gentle manner. The other personal detail that biographers never leave out is his trip to Italy from 1638 to 1639, which is significant because that was when he met important thinkers and literary figures and became an international literary figure in his own right: good for Milton, but even better for his readers, because such recognition is often what is needed to give a writer confidence to explore his own thoughts and fears more deeply. He was politically active on the side of the parliamentarians against King Charles I in the Civil War of 1642 to 1648, which meant that he supported the power of elected representatives, rather than allowing die king to keep the absolute power that he traditionally had. After Charles I was executed in 1649, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Languages. In 1660, when the monarchy was restored under Charles II. he was arrested, but friends managed to get him released. He was a complicated man who embraced Christianity yet fought with almost all organized Christian religions; who sometimes relished public attention but who also hated public criticism so much that he often quarreled in print with his critics, as in his "Defense of Himself published in 1655 and his "Second Defense" incongruously published the year before.

And, of course, he was blind.

      All of the details about Milton's life made him an interesting historical figure as someone centrally positioned in events in England in the seventeenth century, but they are not interesting enough to prop up a literary reputation. Even the blindness that complicated his life as a writer does not necessarily make him more interesting than, says a blind butcher. As he said in Second Defence, "To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable." Television constantly bombards our culture with uplifting stories of courageous individuals who manage to overcome their hardships: the extent to which these stories are successful depends, not on the hardships being overcome, but on what the struggle means to the person struggling. Milton was a voracious reader who spent whole years studying various disciplines that he previously had known nothing about, learning as much about music, geography, history and several languages as professionals in those fields. Losing his ability to read and write cut deeply to the core of his personality. In his later years he had people to read and write for him, but that was as poor as substitute as having someone taste his food for him would have been. We only need to notice the importance that he put on light after his sight was gone to see what it meant to him. In Samson Agonistes, for example, he has Samson declare, "Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct"; the Invocation to Book III of Paradise Urn consists of a whole section in praise of light, including the phrase "God is Light," which is a strangely self-excluding thing for a blind Christian to say. Rather than gathering up his determination to "overcome" blindness or deciding to simply accept the fate dealt to him. Milton wrote about true, complex feelings brought on by affliction. In this poem, which historians guess was written soon after he lost his sight, Milton shows the nerve to present himself as angry, frustrated, and vulnerable, and he has the verbal grace to hold these hot emotions suspended within fourteen lines.

      There is nothing simple about this poem On His Blindness or the poet John Milton, although people will often declare that they don't see the big deal if they are not willing to take the time to study. Some day in the future, when blindness is overcome by implants and neurosurgery, this poem will still be important to readers because it will show them how to deal with deep disappointments and how to relate to their God. Time has put a little dust on the language that Milton used, and most readers have a hard time understanding his primary meaning-much less the subheadings that he hints at without the aid of a dictionary and poetry guide. Nonetheless, the strength of the poem makes the trip from our world to Milton's worth it.

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