Themes of On His Blindness by John Milton

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Theme of Limitation

      In the Sonnet "On His Blindness" Milton meditates on the devastating effect blindness has had on his life and work. He equates his lost vision with "light spent," and laments not the handicap in and of itself, but the limitations it imposes on his work as a poet His poetic ability is so important to him that he calls it "that one talent," suggesting it is the only talent that matters. It is "Lodged with me useless" - in other words, its expression has been rendered impossible by his blindness. His limitation is particularly distressing since Milton desires more than ever to write poetry but seems to see no way to continue. Blindness imposed a double limitation on Milton's poetic activity. In the broadest sense, it made poetry an impossible activity, for there was no way for a blind man to put words to paper, in addition, Milton's conception of epic poetry presupposed a high level of education. The loss of his vision meant he could no longer read and, by extension, could no longer learn.

Theme of Light

      The image of "tight" is important to the poem. On the most superficial level it refers to physical light which the poet can no longer experience, it calls to mind a story in the Gospel of John (John IX, 1-7) to which Milton referred in other texts. In the story. Jesus miraculously cures a beggar's blindness. The image of light resonates on many different levels in the Bible story, and most are present in Sonnet 16 as well. For instance, when Jesus tells his disciples "I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day; the night cometh when no man can work daylight is a metaphor for man's life. Like each day, our lives are limited and once night comes that day is gone forever. As he writes, Milton is still alive, but he believes the darkness his blindness has brought means the end of his creative life. When he writes of "talent which is death to hide," he suggests further that his blindness will prevent him from achieving another, longer life: the immortality that fame brings a poet who has written a masterpiece.

      On yet another level, light signifies the inner tight the spiritual light that shines in the poet of the gospel story, Christ called himself "the light of the world," that he was bringing God's word to man. Milton believed that poets were also bringers of light; their works brought a special kind of enlightenment to humanity. But his blindness has snuffed out his poetic tight.

Duty Theme

      Milton refers to another gospel passage in this sonnet the parable of the talents from the gospel of Matthew. In that story a master gives each of his three servants a sum of money, that is, some "talents." which they are to keep for him while he undertakes a journey. When he returns, he asks each servant for the money. The first two have used the money wisely and return to the master twice the sum they were entrusted with. The third servant, however, only buried his talent The master is angry with the servant lakes back the money, and casts him "in the outer darkness" live moral of the story, of which Milton is well aware, is that each are given gifts by God, and that for all there will be a day of reckoning when all will have to "present (one's) true account" In his poem, Milton plays upon the two meanings of "talent": a form of money in the Bible story and a God-given ability in the everyday sense. He fears that, because of his blindness, he will never be able to put his talent to the use God intends.

How could a person "serve" by merely wailing? What situations can you think of in which someone could perform a great service by "waiting?"

What other physical handicap could be as damaging to a career as blindness? Describe it and its consequences without using the name of the handicap.

Write a poem in reply to Milton that might persuade him that his talent is not useless.

      For fourteen years, Milton "hid his talent in the earth," in the words of the gospel The "wicked and slothful servant" was cast into darkness. One sense, therefore, in which "it is death to hide" one's talent, is that one will be punished: cast out of the light, out of God's presence. Milton, however, has not yet been called to make his "true account." His soul burns as much as ever to put it to use, but the darkness into which he has already been cast prevents Milton from doing his duty to God and making full use of his talent. Can God expect him do his work without his eyesight?, he is finally tempted to ask. Can God truly expect him to fulfill a duty that God himself has apparently made impossible?

Submission Theme

      Patience, the virtue, counsels against putting that foolish question put to the Almighty. Man's duty to God is not to give Him anything. God has no need of humans' work; everything they have are "his own gifts" anyway, in Milton's eyes, In the face of a catastrophe like blindness the only course of action open to him and the rest of mankind, as the last six lines suggest - is humble resignation to God's will "Who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve hint best" hearkens back to the passage in John's gospel mentioned earlier. Jesus tells his disciples that the blind man did not become blind because he had sinned, "but that the work of God should be made manifest in him." Like Job, Milton accepts his lot in life as part of a greater plan. Some are meant for action, to "speed / And post o'er the land and ocean without rest" But others "who only stand and wait" - whether as a servant awaiting his master's bidding or a laborer waiting to be hired-do God's will as well.

      In "On His Blindness" sonnet of Milton takes advantage of the Italian sonnet form, in which an octave, or first eight lines, poses a problem, and the sestet, or last six lines, offers an answer or resolution. The dividing point between problem and solution is at line 9, usually called the "turn" or volta. In this sonnet, Milton uses the turn cleverly to emphasize his own impatience: the rum comes a half line early, and it is his own patience he personifies as speaking out to "prevent" his own impatience. The quatrains use enclosed rhyme, sometimes noticed as abba abba; here the sestets rhyme scheme is cde cde, one of the many accepted rhyme schemes of an Italian sestet. Milton was known for his metrical skill, and this poem's regular iambic pentameter is typically competent, although it does not contain the amazing rhythmic and musical effects for which he is well known. It is interesting instead for its many enjambments, the running over of one line into another, which might be said to make the lines hurry along. All the inpatient enjambment make the last line stand out by contrast; in some sense they help the last line perform what its theme is, to stand still and wait.

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