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A Sonnet’s Unlikely Resolution: John Milton On His Blindness

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John Milton On His Blindness

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.

Photo by Paul van de Velde, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Your Comments

10 Comments so far

  1. Karen H says:

    It also follows the “lamentation” form of biblical psalms. That is, it first presents a grievance, then a realization, then a peaceful resolution. My only difference from your interpretation (if I read it correctly), though, is a consciousness of the Milton’s particular religious perspective, in particular the concept of “grace.” “They also serve who only stand and wait,” can also be read as “those who stand and wait also serve,” and ties in with the Protestant emphasis on salvation through grace (not works), which was very much emphasized in Milton’s day (and to this day as a distinction between Catholic and Protestant sects). In other words, he’s saying, I can’t serve God through my poetry because my sight is going, but works aren’t what saves me, it’s God’s grace, and because of that, I still am serving even if I just stand and wait.

    It’s not an interpretation I’d put on most anyone else’s work, but since it’s Milton and he was the Puritan poet, his belief system and place in history is going to be integral to his work, in my opinion.

    Wonderful post! I haven’t read Milton in…decades (possibly the last time was in college!), and I’m glad I found your link on Facebook. I’ve a different perspective on life in my middle age, and taking another look at Milton was…well, mind-blowing, especially when I realized today that he’s combining the sonnet form with biblical psalm form. Simply brilliant.

    Thank you so much for making this accessible on Facebook, on your blog, and on Twitter. I’m subscribing today.

  2. L. L. Barkat says:

    Karen, we are so glad you found us. Our favorite thing is to talk poetry with people in a celebratory and friendly manner. I think you’re going to really enjoy yourself :)

  3. KSP says:

    Karen H: You can’t imagine how delighted I am to have brought a bit of Milton back into your life! What a source of endless treasure is he! I think both of our interpretations are the same: the peaceful resolution is his realization that he doesn’t need to “work” to serve God; his waiting on God is enough. I did not know of the parallels to lamentation literature. That is greatly enriching to know. Thank you for sharing. And thank you for joining us!

  4. Sam Van Eman says:

    Karen, thank you for the analysis. I’ve always appreciated being led beneath the surface.

  5. KSP says:

    Thanks, Sam, for reading and journeying with us under that surface! Life is too rich in depth and texture merely to skim! :)

  6. Simply wonderfully encouraging…thank you :) Like how Milton was honest like David in his psalms then reminding himself of who God is…His character.

  7. KSP says:

    Thank you, Dolly! So glad you were encouraged by this.


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