Friday, September 24, 2010

Sonnet 19 (On His Blindness) by John Milton

On the way home from the vet today, I realized that brainradio was reciting a line of poetry: "They also serve who only stand and wait." (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "brainradio" is a word I coined to describe the part of my brain that usually plays music for me - what? doesn't everyone have this? Anyway, sometimes it recites poetry for me as well, probably because poetry and music are closely related in some ways. But I digress.)

For the life of me, I couldn't remember what poem this was from, and I was guessing far wide of the mark - I thought perhaps it was one of the so-called War Poets who wrote about WWI, like maybe Wilfred Owen. But no, I was centuries off and it has nothing to do with war or veterans. Today's poem, which concludes with the line brainradio was repeating for me, is by John Milton, and it has to do with his adjustment to blindness. His eyesight had been failing for about 10 years, but in 1654 or thereabouts, he lost it altogether.

Sonnet XIX
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."

Form: The poem is a Petrarchan or Italianate sonnet, written in iambic pentameter (five iambs per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and rhymed ABBAABBACDECDE. I especially like Milton's used of enjambment in this poem, where a thought begins sometimes in mid-line and wraps into the next without so much as an implied stop at the end of the line. Nice stuff for a poem that is presumed to date from 1655.

Discussion: Milton's reference to light is both literal and metaphorical. Having lost his eyesight completely, he no longer sees the light; at this point in his life, he believes his ability to write may have been lost as well (despite the fact that he's writing a marvelous sonnet AT THAT MOMENT), so he is no longer able to share his own "light" (or talent or life's work) with the world. His poem is a way of working toward acceptance of his physical condition: believing that his blindness is something God has chosen for him, he is trying to find a way to bear his condition patiently.

Interestingly enough, only three or four years after this poem was written, Milton embarked on writing what many consider his masterwork, Paradise Lost, which he wrote by using an amanuensis (a person who takes dictation, also called a personal secretary), so Milton was still able to share his talent despite having lost his eyesight.

Milton held rather interesting religious beliefs that were entirely his own, and did not align squarely with any one particular religion, although they definitely grew out of a Puritan background and his strong belief in acting in accordance with individual conscience. He also held dangerous political beliefs for his time; he had supported Cromwell, including writing tracts and treatises that impliedly supported the notion of regicide. When Cromwell died and the Restoration began, Milton had to go into hiding. He continued to rail against Charles II of England, even if his opposition was sometimes couched indirectly (as is true with Paradise Lost, which is as much about the loss of the Republic he'd supported as much as it is about biblical events).

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