On His Blindness: by John Milton - Summary & Analysis

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When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged 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 denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, scion replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, His State
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and waite"

Poem Summary

Line 1
      The poet considers how his "light" is used up or wasted or put forth in the world; in a poem on blindness, "light" can most easily be interpreted as his ability to see. But for this deeply religious poet, it may also mean an inner light or spiritual capacity.

Line 2
      The poet assumes that his life is not yet half over. The phrase "in this dark world and wide" is typical of one of the ways Milton handles adjectives, putting one in front of the noun and one behind it.

Line 3
      This line may refer to the Biblical parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which speaks of a bad servant who neglects his master's talent (a talent was a kind of coin) instead of using it; he is "cast into outer darkness," It can also mean a literal talent, in other words Milton's talent as a writer.

Line 4-6
      "Lodged with me useless" means that his talent as a poet is useless now that he is losing his sight, "Though my soul more bent / to serve therewith my Maker" can be roughly paraphrased, "although my soul is even more inclined to serve God with that talent" This is especially frustrating to want to serve God with his writing but to feel his talent will be wasted as he becomes blind. He wishes ultimately to "present his true account" or give a good account of himself and his service to God,

Line 5
      Line 5 expresses the speaker's desire to serve God through his poetry, to use his talents for the glory of God.

Line 6
      This line may refer to the second coming of Christ or to the judgment. "Lest he returning chide" can be paraphrased "so that he won't chide or rebuke me when he returns".

Lines 7-8
      Milton grumblingly asks here if God just wants day-work, or smaller, lesser tasks, since Milton's blindness denies him his "light" and thus the use of his talents. Note that Milton allows his grumbling tone to show first, and then qualifies his own attitude as foolish.

Line 8
      Patience is not capitalized, but has often been thought of as a personification here rather than as another aspect of Milton's inner self. Either way, in the inner dialogue, patience speaks in the remaining six lines, quite effectively having the last word.

Line 9
      Patience speaks, to prevent that "murmur," Milton's questioning of God's will in line 7.

Line 10
      Patience's reply explains one aspect of the nature of God and affirms a kind of service to God that is different from the service advocated in the parable of the talents. First of all God does not need man's work or God-given talents. The nature of service to God is explained next.

Lines 10-11
      "Who best / bear his mild yoke" means the people who are most obedient to God's will (which is mild, not difficult). These people are the ones who serve God best. The Image of the yoke is also Biblical; a yoke was a kind of harness put on oxen but in Matthew 11:29-30 it is ait image for God's will.

Lines 11-12
      "His state is kingly" explains God's greatness; patience goes on to elaborate in the next lines on that greatness.

Lines 12-14
      At God's bidding or will, thousands of people and by implication angelic messengers "speed and post" all over the world all the time. This line implies a sort of constant worldwide motion of service to God's commands; that allows the last line to imply by contrast a great restfulness and peace. There is more than one way to serve God, and patience is telling the poet that even his waiting or the apparent inaction caused by his blindness can be a kind of service if it meets the criterion of lines 10-11, to bear the yoke well, line 14, This famous line is often quoted.

Critical Analysis

      Milton give the number 19, to the sonnet On His Blindness but in the published book it was numbered 16. "On His Blindness" was printed in Poems (1673), but was most likely written at some earlier time, probably during a period in the early 1650s (his blindness became complete in 1652), Milton struggles in this sonnet with frustration at becoming blind and with his own sense of how important it is to use one's talents well in God's service, The sonnet records how be comes to understand a higher notion of service: real service is doing the will of God even if it means he must "stand and wait," Notice as well the use of quiet puns or words that draw on double meanings. The words with double meanings are "spent" (in line 1), "talent" (secondary meaning, coin, line 3), "useless" (secondary meaning, without usury or interest on a debt, line 4), "account" (line 6), and "exact" (line 7). The secondary meanings run in a coherent line of images: all are images of monetary exchange. Milton is a poet who is highly sensitive to the multiple senses available in language and to clusters of imagery of this sort. Another thing to understand about Milton's sonnets is their topical range. Not writer of love sonnets in English (although the sonnets he wrote in Italian are love sonnets), Milton writes political sonnets, occasional sonnets, elegiac sonnets, and sonnets of personal meditation, like this one.

      Milton's blindness was not an unexpected bolt from the blue. His mother had bad vision, and his own eyesight faded slowly over nearly a decade. Trouble seemed to start in 1644, when he noticed problems reading. He once described his early symptoms as "a sort of rainbow" that obscured whatever he was looking at That was followed by a mist in his left eye which gradually blotted out everything on that side. Objects nearby looked smaller than they should have. When he rested and closed his eyes, he experienced an explosion of colors. This description has suggested to medical specialists that he had a cyst on his pituitary gland. In 1650 his left eye became completely blind. Milton's continuous writing, reading, and correction of proofs probably hastened his complete loss of vision. For the last twenty-two years of his life he had to dictate his writings to a secretary. A more difficult adjustment for the studious Milton may have been that he needed someone to read to him.

      Milton became completely blind at the age of forty-three in 1652 and "Sonnet 16" is intimately connected with the poet's loss of sight. But scholars disagree whether Milton composed the piece upon the onset of total blindness or at another date (the poem was not actually printed until the collection Poems in 1673). Some critics, for example, insist that the sonnets were written in chronological order. If so, "Sonnet 16" would have been written sometime after 1655. In that year inhabitants of the Italian area of Piedmont brutally massacred members of the Waldensians (also known as the Vaudois), a group of religious dissenters who had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Milton's next sonnet is from that year and commemorates "the late massacre at Piedmont"

      Others believe die despair evident in the poem could only have been so deeply felt soon after the full onset of his blindness. By 1654, when the author completed his Second Defence of the English People, he had regained full confidence in his ability to work despite his disability. After that work was completed, these critics contend, his blindness took on a completely different cast in his own mind: what had earlier seemed a handicap became proof that, like prophets of old, he had been marked by God for some extraordinary work. If he did postpone publishing the sonnet until later, it might have been to conceal his sightlessness from his political enemies, who would have used it as a sign of God's wrath. This accusation that was often made anyway, especially after the restoration of the Charles 11 to the throne of England in 1660.

      Still, others speculate that the poem could have been written long before the author's complete loss of vision. Milton did not seem handicapped by his blindness, even immediately after it became total, The Council of State retained him as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, a position which required him to compose and translate important diplomatic correspondence. They apparently did not view his blindness as a liability. Furthermore, Milton became progressively blind over a number of years and would have had an opportunity to adjust to it. These critics point to the line "Ere half my days in this dark world and wide" and note that Milton would have been long past the midpoint of his life in the 1650s, In the seventeenth century, a normal lifespan was considered "Threescore years and ten" (seventy years), a number mentioned in the Psalms. Milton turned thirty-six in 1644. He first noticed problems with his sight at that time, problems that often prevented him from reading. Perhaps then Milton wrote "Sonnet 16" - which was not titled "On His Blindness" until long after his death for eventual blindness.

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