When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

When I Consider How My LIght Is Spent

by John Milton

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, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
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 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 wait.”

________________________________

This sonnet is about John Milton (1608-1674) going blind in his early 40s. It examines the implications of the loss of sight on his life.

With that context, let’s look at the poem.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

Milton reflects on the fact that he will spend the latter half of his life with blindness.

And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless,

Like a lot of people who experience early-life blindness, Milton frets over whether he will be able to even continue his vocation with no sight.

though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask.

The textual substance of the poem is focused on service. Milton uses the word “serve” on three occasions. He frets over how he might serve – and thus, please – God without being able to see.

Typically in a Petrarchan sonnet, the first eight lines (the octave) represent a poet’s initial thoughts and the last six lines (a sestet) provide another perspective or a change in tone. Thus, the start of the 9th line is typically where we see a volta (a turn.) Here, though, Milton does something different. His volta – like his blindness – comes early. We find it halfway through the 8th line.

But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies,

Milton’s turn happens, as makes sense, at the word “but.” Whereas the first part of the sonnet is an expression of worry over a change in circumstances, the turn leads him to patience and the assurance of provision.

“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 wait.”

God does not need Milton to work in haste (or even with sight.) The Lord has thousands at his bidding all over the world. He merely needs Milton to bear a “mild yoke” and to “stand and wait.”

____________________________

Who is John Milton?

John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674) was an English poet and intellectual who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse, and widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written.

Writing in English, Latin, Greek, and Italian, he achieved international renown within his lifetime; his celebrated Areopagitica (1644), written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship, is among history’s most influential and impassioned defences of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. His desire for freedom extended into his style: he introduced new words (coined from Latin and Ancient Greek) to the English language, and was the first modern writer to employ unrhymed verse outside of the theatre or translations.

William Hayley‘s 1796 biography called him the “greatest English author”, and he remains generally regarded “as one of the preeminent writers in the English language”, though critical reception has oscillated in the centuries since his death (often on account of his republicanism). Samuel Johnson praised Paradise Lost as “a poem which…with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind”, though he (a Tory and recipient of royal patronage) described Milton’s politics as those of an “acrimonious and surly republican”. Poets such as William BlakeWilliam Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy revered him.

If you read his biography carefully, you will note that Milton’s greatest and most revered work, Paradise Lost, was written *after* his blindness and not before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s