John Milton: On his blindness
John Milton was born in 1608 to a Puritan family. During his service to the Commonwealth, in 1652, Milton became blind and it became necessary for others to share in his labors. His blindness occasioned one of the most moving of his sonnets, “On his blindness,” written in 1655. It records his fear that he will never be able to use his God-given gift for poetry again. Yet God may demand an accounting of his righteousness. And his entry into Heaven will depend upon how well he has used the gifts that God gave him. The sonnet ends with Milton’s acceptance of the fact that what God wants of him is obedience and resignation. He can then serve God even if he cannot write poetry, for “they also serve who only stand and wait.”
When I consider how my light is spent
When I judge how my ability to see has been taken away
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
After I have only lived half of my life
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
This is based on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the unprofitable servant was punished for burying, not using, the talent his master had given him. Milton is pondering whether he will be punished for not using his ability that is useless and will weigh down his final judgment.
To serve therewith my maker, and present My true account, lest He returning chide,
Milton cannot serve God by using his ability to see and now he must face God in his true account of being blind. And if God was to reprimand Milton because he has not served God well he will say the following:
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.
Milton wonders, now that blindness has fallen upon him before half his working life is spent, whether God will still expect him to use his talent. Milton now says that with patience his murmur of spite against God, Doth God will be avoided. And patience replies: God does not need men to serve Him nor to serenade Him, whoever carry His burdens without complaint, serve him finest.
The term mild yoke is a double-entendre. The Yoke blindness as the burden, is not so bad a punishment. Proof that the punishment of loss of sight was not as bad as conceived was that Milton, while blind, continued to accomplish what most people who are privileged to see cannot do, to write to well-known epic poems: Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The second meaning is that one should bear God s burdens (yoke) in a mild manner and not complain of the suffering and serve God as best as one is able.
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 is kingly and omnipotent. Thousands serve Him at His beckoning. Milton is answered with the idea that there are angels of contemplation as well as of action; similarly, some men may serve God best who humbly accept His decrees, waiting in faith on His will. Patience replies that while God does not really need “Either man’s work or his own gift,” He wants obedience and resignation. Thousands of angels serve Him, but men “also serve who only stand and wait.” There are many scriptural passages that Milton may have had in mind, such as Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).
This poem appeals to me because Milton says that at first he was concerned that he would not be admitted into heaven because he did not serve God, but later he concludes that one may go to heaven through faith in God. I can apply this to my own life and serve God with the abilities that I have, but even if that fails, I can always serve God with my faith. Milton saw himself as the prophet who had failed, the man of the Lord to whom no one listened, that he completed the epic poems Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes to which so many listened.