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On His Blindness -- John Milton

Rectifying a serious omission in the list of covered poets...
(Poem #106) 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."
-- John Milton
Milton is not really one of my favourite poets, but this in no way detracts
from his obvious merits. The poem above is one of his most famous[1], and
certainly one of the more famous sonnets around. Like most of Milton's
poetry, it is explicitly religious; this does, I think, give it a slightly
anachronistic feel today, but it was far from uncommon in his time. Like a
number of famous poems, most of this one's impact lies in its last line,
which provides a beautiful counterpoint to the rest of the poem, and which
is far more famous than the sonnet itself.

[1] always excepting 'Paradise Lost'



Form: sonnet: abbaabbacdecde
1. The date of composition is uncertain, Milton's blindness, to which this
   is the first reference in his poetry, became virtually complete in 1652,
   but if the arrangement of his sonnets is (as it elsewhere appears to be)
   chronological, the date must be, like that of Sonnet XVIII, 1655. First
   printed in Poems, 1673.

   light: power of vision, to be taken in conjunction with "this dark
   world.'' In a letter of 1654 Milton refers to a very faint
   susceptibility to light still remaining to him.

2. Ere half my days: we must not expect mathematical accuracy. But if we
   remember that Milton is speaking about his career in God's service, take
   its beginning in the avowed dedication to that service in Sonnet VII
   (1632), and assume the scriptural life-span of three score years and ten
   (which would mean life till 1678), 1652 falls before, and even 1655 does
   not extend beyond, the half-way mark of Milton's expected career of

3-6. The allusion is to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30);
     death, like the outer darkness into which the unprofitable servant was
     cast, stands for the utmost in punishment; the Talent was a measure of
     weight and hence of value; there is here, of course, a play on the word
     in its modern sense of mental gift or endowment, in Milton's case his
     gift of poetry.

8. fondly: foolishly.

 -- from <>

Biography and Assessment

  Milton's sonnets (he only wrote a few, but they are so well-known that his
  variation is called the Miltonic sonnet) retain the original rhyme scheme
  of the Petrarchian or Italian sonnet, but completely get rid of the
  "volte", or change or perspective between the octet and sestet. The result
  is that the 14-line stanza becomes a monolith. An astounding thing is that
  it turns out to be just the right length, even for wide-minded (and
  occasionally long-winded) Milton.

        -- Bob Blair

  The major sonnets have much poetical as well as autobiographical interest,
  and as a group they illustrate (with "Lycidas") both in texture and rhythm
  the beginnings of the grand style (i.e., a literary style marked by a
  sustained and lofty dignity and sublimity) that was to have full scope in
  Paradise Lost. One is less conscious of sonnet structure and of rhymes
  than of a single massive unit that approaches a paragraph of Milton's
  blank verse.

        -- EB

Milton, John

 b. Dec. 9, 1608, London, Eng.
 d. Nov. 8, 1674, Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire

  one of the greatest poets of the English language. He also was a noted
  historian, scholar, pamphleteer, and civil servant for the
  Parliamentarians and the Puritan Commonwealth.

  Milton ranks second only to Shakespeare among English poets; his writings
  and his influence are an important part of the history of English
  literature, culture, and libertarian thought. He is best known for
  Paradise Lost, which is generally regarded as the greatest epic poem in
  the English language. Milton's prose works, however, are also important as
  a valuable interpretation of the Puritan revolution, and they have their
  place in modern histories of political and religious thought.

        -- EB

  A more complete biogaphy may be found at

And since no biography of Milton would be compelete without a short note on
Paradise Lost:

  By 1650 Milton had given up the idea of composing a British epic. Instead
  he chose what was considered the most momentous event, next to the life
  and death of Christ, in the world's history--the fall of mankind from
  grace. Paradise Lost is an epic poem written in blank verse--i.e.,
  unrhymed iambic pentameter verse. It tells the story of Satan's rebellion
  against God and his expulsion from heaven and the subsequent temptation
  and expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

  By Milton's time the Fall of Man had already received innumerable
  literary treatments, narrative and dramatic, so that the simple tale in
  Genesis and the more shadowy role of Satan in heaven, earth, and hell
  had acquired a good deal of interpretative and concrete embellishment.
  So the main motives and events of Paradise Lost had abundant literary
  precedent, though they were handled with powerful originality; Milton,
  like a Greek dramatist, was reworking a story familiar in outline to his
  audience. His story, moreover, gave him the advantage of immemorial
  belief and association in the minds of his earlier readers. This
  advantage no longer operates in the same way--although, for modern
  readers, the fable still possesses at least the immemorial and universal
  import of archetypal myth.

        -- EB

55 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Rosemary Kerr said...

As someone who is writing poems on faith I find the suggestion that religious poetry is anachronistic, as though spiritual questions had lost their relevance. Let me conclude with this

Love Song
A sonnet

In sixty years I've learned love can't be spoken,

The words that tell it drift deceptively

Like scent of roses heavy in the garden,

Avoiding questions bent on what might be.

You gone, an ocean and a continent between,

Something returns from everything we've seen

To spin a new creation that's been won

Against the pain and grief we've brooded on.

Something wild and strange is happening

As lives untangle, yielding freedom now

From tactical defense and bargaining.

Rather, let's sing again life's song, and so

A new world is begun, and we are part of it

With God - who spins the thread - and everyone.

cowan said...

Although Milton's religiousity overrides much of the discussion of his poetry, I find that the universality of his placement in the world speaks much more clearly than his definition of the church. Within this context we discover the philosophies that yokes are defined by the wearer as heavy or light, and more importantly the concept that those who wait to serve (even within the definition that at this point the service would be less than adequate) are equal to the greatest of all workers. Does it bother anyone that such a devote Christian should spend his introduction to the epic of man with a prayer to the Greek muse to guide his hand?

Joel said...

I feel that 'Geo' rather mis-understands the point of this poem. It is not about the concept that those who "wait to serve" are equal to the 'greatest workers' - rather that the waiting itself is service. This is no small point, for the whole meaning of the poem centres around it! See line 9-10 "God doth not need .. man's work .. who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best". Milton is rejoicing in the fact that there is no such thing as a 'greatest worker' as Geo puts it - there are only those who serve God, and those who do not. And if God asks that he 'stand and wait' then his service is complete doing just that.

P Cosgrove said...

Joel, you say it perfectly and accurately reflect Milton's essential point.


Michael Baribeau said...

Milton laments that he can't praise God through his
poetry as he once did and feels as though he's failing
God, "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?". But
then he realizes, "God doth not need either man's work
or his own gifts:" Although is blindness compels him
even "more bent to serve therewith my Maker" it is
"who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best"
that really matters to God. It is patients and
humility who "best bear" His servile yoke, even if all
they ever do is stand at the ready, "who only stand
and wait".

Michael Baribeau

sandy said...

"On his Blindness" was meant to be an inspirational poem for those who have disabilities. The poem is successful in achieving its purpose, as the various methods employed by the writer makes on feel that one is not alone in ones situation. In the form of Patience, one is too given hope and a reason not to indulge in delf-pity. The language reveals the feelings of the writer and mirrors a common situation where people doubt God because they are in a negative situation. The role of Patience is that of a reminder- one can still serve God no matter the circumstances. Alongside these elements is Milton's relation of human life to the Bible, which provided familiar allusions for the people who lived in his time.

Anonymous said...

i want a note on Milton's autobiographical element related to "On his blindness" and "On his twenty third birthday"

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Anonymous said...

Another parallel between Hindu and Christian thought. This is Karma, to to best bear his mild yoke. If it is all we can do, bear the yoke, we must. Extremely well written sonnet, one of the best in all English Literature. Why have the Brits become so anti-religious today? This not anachronistic at all.

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Bill Greaves said...

I am trying to find performances (readings or recitings) of On His Blindness - soundfiles that I can download. Any help is appreciated.

Abhishek said...

A wonderful summary. If you find time to read my summary

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