Where would we be without resolutions? Accomplishments would be only accidents, stories incidents just strung along, music mere unending notes, and poetry but a jumble of words. Resolution puts all the pieces together like a completed puzzle.
John Milton’s famous sonnet, “On his blindness,” begins in puzzlement. The speaker (the poem is autobiographical; perhaps we dare say the poet) is pondering the account he will give when he stands before his God for the use he has made of his time and talents. But how unjust! He has suffered the loss of his eyesight—before even half his life is over!—and this God who will hold him to account is the one who wrested away the very tool of his trade—his vision. Understandably, the poet’s mood quickly worsens in the first half of the poem from puzzlement to dismay, even anger…
On His Blindness
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.”
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, a form consisting of an octave followed by a sestet; the octave presents the problem, and the sestet offers the resolution. The situation, as we’ve seen, is quite clear. What’s striking, though, is that the problem is presented in only seven (not eight) lines, not quite in accordance with the rules of the form. What happens in the last line of the octave?
The first half of line 8 declares that the poet asks his question “fondly.” In the seventeenth century, “fond” still retained its original meaning of “foolish.” Thus the poet acknowledges that his query is mere foolishness. Then, mid-line, a new sentence begins, offering the response to the poet’s imploration, given by “Patience,” personified. Patience’s answer, provided in the sestet, is essentially this: God doesn’t need your works. The entire world is under his authority, and countless others are accomplishing his business, but you, too, can serve “who only stand and wait.”
What a dramatic resolution! One of the greatest poets who ever lived worries that his poetry is not good enough to justify his life. Not only is he offered the reassurance that sometimes simply waiting—with Patience—is enough, but that reassurance comes “soon.”
If we recall rules of the form and go back to that break that is supposed to occur at the beginning of the sestet, in line 9, we find that the resolution starts, not there, but earlier in line 8. The resolution begins with Patience’s reply—or perhaps even with the speaker’s admission of his own foolishness. The expression of the problem is cut short according to the expectations of the sonnet form when the God of the poet breaks the rules in order to bring about resolution. With all the pieces of the puzzle in place, the picture is finally clear, and the poem resolves into a sense of peaceful assurance.
Post by Karen Swallow Prior.
Further Resources, for Teachers or Writer’s Groups:
Buy a year of Every Day Poems— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In January we’re exploring the theme Resolutions.