Sonnet 19: On His Blindness
(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-labour, 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.”
About the poem’s name .. The name given by Milton to this enduring poem was ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent’. The poem captures the mood of the poet after he became blind, and was past his prime. The name was later changed to ‘On His Blindness’ by the editor Bishop John Newton.
About John Milton …. John Milton (1608 – 1674) didn’t live long on this earth. He didn’t have a normal happy life either. His first wife, Mary Powel, died after bearing him four children, his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, died after her first delivery, and he married his third wife, Elizabeth Mynshull for just about 12 years before he died.
Milton had a non-conformist, rebellious, and assertive mind. He was deeply religious too. His grandfather was a devout Catholic, but his father became a Protestant, a decision that cost him the entire patrimony. John Milton was a Protestant, and had hoped to enter the Church, but his prodigious literary talent, and his fearless views on literary freedom brought him to literature. Besides English, he was well-versed in Greek and Latin too.
John Milton was born in Bread Street in London with a silver spoon in his mouth. In the childhood years, he was mentored by Thomas Young. Later, John Milton went to study in St. Paul’s School in London. He did his B.A from Christ College, Cambridge, and did his M.A from the University of Cambridge. Milton was proficient in Greek and Latin besides his mother tongue, English.
John Milton was a fiery campaigner for unfettered intellectual freedom. He crusaded for the cause of banishing laws that permitted censure of manuscripts before they were published. His book, ‘The Paradise Lost’ is still read by those who cherish the values of freedom of thought and expresion. Milton wrote ‘Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England’ This was a scathing attack on the policy of censoring of manuscripts well before their publishing.
Among Milton’s great works are ‘Of Education’, ‘Of Reformation’, ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ and many more.
The world remembers John Milton as an ardent advocate of literary freedom, women’s right for divorce, and a deeply spiritual man. It is remarkable how Milton continued to give vent to his literary ideas well after he had become completely blind.
Meaning of the poem .. Milton wrote this poem of introspection after he had become blind, and lost much of his mental and physical prowess. He had assumed that God had given him some gift in the form of intelligence, creativity, wealth, education, sharp mental faculties etc. He terms them ‘Light’ in the first opening line of his Sonnet.
Milton realizes that he is past his prime, and the world looks so depressingly dark and bleak. He, possibly, will become ‘deadwood’ soon. He ponders how he can continue to serve Him with his vision gone and his mind and body crippled. There is a sense of loss and lost opportunity that torments him. Anguish overpowers him.
He knows the time will soon arrive when he will stand before Him to show his ‘Report Card’ and explain why he fell short of His expectations despite being endowed with so much ‘light’ in his life on earth.
While thinking about his poor record on earth, he wonders if God demands hard work and high score from his children during the day when the day looks so dark due to lack of vision. After all, a blind man can do very limited work. God knows this.
While immersed in these thoughts, the idea dawn on his mind that God never demands anything from his fellow creatures. He is far from being a hard task master, or a greedy land lord. He is kind, lenient, and very understanding. As the benevolent Creator, he is happy if his children do the task assigned to them to the best of their capacity. This ‘performance bar’ obviously is lower for a crippled man. So, there is no need to assume that God will admonish those who have not been able to give their best due to physical or mental debility or any such reason.
God is like a King with an army of servants at his feet, each trying to obey his commands at lightening speed. No doubt, God is pleased with these agile servants, but He is equally pleased that there are others waiting to serve him with the same alacrity and devotion like the other servants. Such servants, because of their readiness to serve Him, are equally dear to Him.