“ON HIS BLINDNESS”
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth (republic) of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost and the famous “On His Blindness”.
Milton's poetry and prose reflect deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self determination, and the urgent issues and political turbulence of his day. Writing in English, Latin, and Italian, he achieved international renown within his lifetime, and his celebrated Areopagitica, (written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship) is among history's most influential and impassioned defenses of free speech and freedom of the press.
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 Johnson (a Tory and recipient of royal patronage) described his politics as those of an "acrimonious and surly republican".
The sonnet’s speaker laments his blindness and worries because he cannot work anymore. Therefore he fears to be worthless in God’s eyes. In this specific poem it is very likely that the speaker is identical with the author because Milton became entirely blind shortly before he wrote this sonnet in 1652 (Bradford 88). Consequently, this sonnet deals with his personal way of coping with his destiny regarding “himself as physically disqualified” (Bradford 88).
Milton’s perspective on life is deeply religious and shaped by his powerful belief in God. This is demonstrated by his intertextual reference to the Bible’s parable of the talent in Matthew 25 (qtd. in Miller 22). In the 17 th century religious poetry was very common and Christian belief played a crucial role in human lives. Milton clearly emphasizes his conception of serving God in line 5: “To serve therewith my Maker” and expects God’s critical judgment on that in line 7: “Doth God exact day-labour”. Thereupon the voice of “Patience” is interacting with the first speaker. These two voices are having a dialogue which makes the poem dramatic.
John Milton criticizes our modern achievement-oriented society in his sonnet “On his blindness” because nowadays performance is a precondition for high regard and appreciation of somebody. However, his poem can serve as a statement in favor of a person’s worthiness independent of one’s performance and workload.
The expression achievement-oriented society means that the distributions of goods like economic resources but also “prestige” and “power” are dependent on the attributed individual’s performance. This functionality is the so called “achievement principle” (Arzberger 24). In other words: Reputation is due to measurable accomplishments. Who does not achieve enough, does not gain any esteem. In order to examine my thesis I am going to analyze both the sonnet’s poetic and rhetorical form. First of all I am going to point out the gist of the poem briefly.
“On His Blindness” is a Petrarchan sonnet, of iambic pentameter and yet again simple diction, full and half-rhyme, enjambment and contraction. Milton has used his extensive knowledge of scripture to create a deeply personal poem, and gently guide himself and the reader or listener from an intense loss through to understanding and gain.
The main themes of this poem are Milton's exploration of his feeling, fears and doubts regarding his failed sight, his rationalization of this fear by seeking solutions in his faith.
The tone of the poem is one of contrasting darkness and light, `my light is spent' and spending half of his life `in this dark world and wide', using alliteration and contrast to give understanding to his affliction, but Milton is also indicating a biblical reference to the `Talent'; a unit of currency in those times, and used several by Jesus as a symbolic level of the meaning of forgiveness. The ending part of this line `which is death to hide', Milton is referring to the Resurrection and that if one hides one's Talent or the gift of the forgiveness and / or compassion.
ON HIS BLINDNESS
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
Lodg'd 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."
1....light is spent: This clause presents a double meaning: (a) how I spend my days, (b) how it is that my sight is used up.
2....Ere half my days: Before half my life is over. Milton was completely blind by 1652, the year he turned 44.
4....therewith: By that means, by that talent; with it
5....account: Record of accomplishment; worth
6....exact: Demand, require
7....fondly: Foolishly, unwisely
8....Patience: Milton personifies patience, capitalizing it and having it speak.
9..God . . . gifts: God is sufficient unto Himself. He requires nothing outside of Himself to exist and be happy.
10. yoke: Burden, workload.
11. post: Travel.
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.
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.
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.
“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 expresses the speaker’s desire to serve God through his poetry, to use his talents for the glory of God.
This line may refer to the second coming of Christ or to the judgement. “Lest he returning chide” can be paraphrased “so that he won’t chide or rebuke me when he returns.”
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.
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.
Patience speaks, to prevent that “murmur,” Milton’s questioning of God’s will in line 7.
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.
“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 an image for God’s will.
“His state is kingly” explains God’s greatness; patience goes on to elaborate in the next lines on that greatness.
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.