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.’
From an early age, John Milton knew that God had called him to a great purpose, and his Puritan background had convinced him that the God Who calls a man also calls him to account at the conclusion of his life. So are we all called to give an account of the use of the gifts and talents that God has entrusted to us. ‘On His Blindness’ expresses Milton’s experience of being frustrated in his desire to fulfill the call upon his life. Normally, blindness limits what an individual is able to achieve. Milton had hoped to create an epic that would bring glory to the name of the Lord, but his premature blindness threatened to frustrate that aspiration.
Complimenting the above, however, Milton has revealed the sovereign grace of his “Maker”. The real purpose of the poem is to display the goodness of God. God does “…exact day-labour …”, but at the same time He “doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts.” The Scriptures clearly teach that even the “plowing of the wicked is sin”, but God has saved us by grace through faith. Our good works will not save us; we have been saved for good works that God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. The lesson of the poem is that those good works are of God’s choosing, and if He chooses that we serve Him by sitting still in His presence, then we are not to question His “kingly” state.
In a masterful way, Milton has recreated the emotional journey that he must have travelled whilst coming to grips with his blindness. As with us all, when faced with tragedy in our lives, Milton expresses his personal pain and frustration. Eight times he writes, “I:, “me” or “my”; self being the focus. The focus shifts at the volta. The latter portion of the sonnet brings God into the focus. From this new perspective, the exacting harshness of the “Maker” is replaced with the gracious enabling of “Patience”.
The sonnet is pregnant with skillful use of poetic tools. If the reader will allow the work its proper gestation period, birth will be given to a rich and meaningful experience. The sonnet is a poetic form that has been used to express important subjects. A man’s wrestling with his loss of sight is a very appropriate subject for the genre. It is interesting to note that the number four, in the Bible, speaks of the earth. The first two quatrains deal with Milton’s earthly perspective. On the other hand, the number three speaks of the Trinity, and it is in the final two groups of three lines that Milton sees the situation from a heavenly perspective.
With the contrast of perspective there is also a contrast of language used. We feel a sense of terseness in the use of words like, “useless”, and “chide”. After the volta, however, “mild yoke”, “rest” and “wait” help to create for us a feeling of peace and gentleness. Such contrast serves to underscore the contrast of perspectives. Milton judiciously uses alliteration, i.e. “Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,” and aurally unites his images.
As with the majority of the poetry from the Puritan period, Milton’s intimate knowledge of the Scriptures is evident throughout the sonnet. He alludes to many Biblical references. In the Gospel of Matthew it is recorded that Jesus equated good works with light. Milton complains that his capacity to do good works is finished; his “light is spent”. The parable of the talents is about a slothful man who hid his talent, and was rebuked by the Master upon His return. So Milton fears the day of accountability before his “Maker” because of “that one talent which is death to hide”. The reference to “day-labour” is of course a reference to the parable of the Owner of the vineyard Who employed labourers at different times of the day, and rewarded each the same wages, even though their job descriptions were vastly different. The reference to “mild yoke” points to the command of Jesus that we are to take His yoke upon us, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
The Puritan doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, and the gratuitous nature of God’s grace is implicit in the lines:
……………………………… ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts.
………………………………………………….. his state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
A sovereign God needs nothing from the hand of man. Such knowledge reduces us to humility before such an awesome God. On the other hand, the grace that allows us to “stand and wait” in the presence of a Holy and Righteous God, fills us with love and affection.
This sonnet provides us with a model of a Christian response to suffering. Few of us have suffered for our faith unto the shedding of blood. Few of us have wrestled with God in the way that Milton has wrestled with God, and as a consequence gained a perspective of life that enabled him — having come to grips with his handicap — to write one of the greatest poems in the English language, ‘Paradise Lost’. This sonnet is good poetry. This sonnet is a worthwhile experience for a Christian. This sonnet is an inspiration to obey the injunction, “In every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God, in Christ Jesus, concerning you”.