Standing and Waiting: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Standing and Waiting: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

Andrew Lazo

I find myself a little swoony about the latest addition to my poetry library: a few slim volumes from the Everyman’s Pocket Poets, including the lovely little Milton volume pictured here. My favorite of Milton’s Sonnets, “On His Blindness,” makes its debut on page one, and since it occupies the pride of place, I thought I’d have a look at some of its stanzas and phrases and see if I can’t make sense of it for the week ahead.

This poem offers a pretty decent example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet: it has an octave (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines), and the ideas often contrast or even oppose each other. Many, such as Petrarch’s poetry for Laura, focus on the unattainable (the two may have had little contact; she was married to another). The octave rhymes a b b a b b a; the sestet has a number of rhyming options, including the one here, c d e c d e.

Milton went blind as an adult, losing his vision over many years. He composed the whole of Paradise Lost after losing all of his sight; some suggest he dictated it to his daughters. So here’s the whole poem; afterwards I’ll take it in bits and wander my way through.

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.”

Let me pull apart a few of the key moments that move me in the poem as I walk through these fourteen lines in search of some help from this blind poet who somehow saw so well.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

Here we find Milton doing what most of us would: contemplating and even lamenting a loss, made all the more poignant because he lived out so much of his vocation as a poet in utter darkness. It certainly reminds me of the fact that Beethoven went deaf. And while my own little life in some ways cannot compare the lives of these giants of creativity, I too know a bit about “this dark world and wide.” I imagine we all do. Milton reminds that sometimes staring deeply enough into darkness helps me notice even the smallest scrap of light. And sometimes that’s the only good thing darkness does for me.

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,

Here Milton alludes to the parable of the talents—a talent is a measure of gold equaling about twenty years’ wages. Think of having a great pile of money plopped in your lap. A wealthy master goes away, leaving five talents with one servant, two with another, and one talent with a third. The first two play the ancient Israeli version of the stock market and double their money, but the third just buries the gold and does nothing—not even investing it in a sixty-day low-yield interest-bearing account. He literally hides it away, burying it in the ground. And then the master returns, and rewards the two profitable servants, but casts the last one into outer darkness. Now if a stock broker faced the death penalty for a bear market, you might get me watching CNBC—that’s the kind of reality show that has some teeth: unlimited wealth or certain death!
Milton certainly understood the implicit pun in English—his “talent” means his ability and gift with which to make much of his life; and he has seen it snuffed out, and would likely trade a world of wealth for it if he could. That’s what he means—he finds his gift of reading and writing useless, though his soul desires all the more to serve his Master. But as I thought deeply about this poem, all of a sudden the next line seemed to open itself up, offering me a key or maybe even a fulcrum to this whole sonnet.

Milton expresses an urgency to serve God to avoid the penalty of (according to the parable) eternal darkness. Perhaps he’d had enough darkness for this lifetime and could not contemplate an eternity of the stuff. Notice too his tone as he laments his condition and fears God’s criticism. His blindness seems to prevent Milton from being able to serve as best he could, to “present [his] true account, lest he [that is, God] returning chides.” Milton wishes he hadn’t gone blind because he fears that God will come to him at the end of his life and upbraid him for not doing enough.

Wait—what? Milton fears that God will give him grief over all he has not done? His talent lies buried, useless inside him. His hands are tied. A grief he can hardly express overwhelms him, drives him into darkness and despair and his big concern consists in not doing more? And Milton had so much more to do, although out of an ever-increasing deficit as the years of his terrible blindness wore on.

To me, this rings all too true. How often have I climbed the weary stairs at the end of a too-long day, having labored in the classroom, and labored at the grading desk, and trudged home only to grouse at myself for not having done the breakfast dishes? How often have I, when bearing great grief, chided myself for not doing more, or for getting tired of the burden I cannot help but bear. And all the more, how many of those times have I blamed that screechy, never-satisfied voice in my head on God?

But Jesus ended his work on the cross saying, “It is finished.” The cross carried all grief, all care, all of the heavy burdens. And it wiped out once and for all any cruel and idolatrous image of a God tapping his foot, looking at His watch, impatient with all of my never-enough. The cross allowed grace to become sufficient for me, and His power to be made perfect in my weakness. It turned the world upside down—which of course means right-side up. And though God will surely return, He will not chide those of us He has hidden in the shadow of the cross, however we cower and cling to it. Christ finished the job for us, and He Himself provides the return on our investment, even if, like a mustard seed, we trust Him with the littlest bits.

And of course, the rest of the sonnet says the same thing. Patience speaks—and Patience here serves as the sound of the true voice of God, satisfied by the saving work of the death of His Son. Patience prevents my murmuring. Patience reminds me that I must bear as best I can the mild yoke, the easy burden—and in so doing Patience wisely whispers that, when I grow weary of carrying the heavy load, I have somehow been fooled into carrying the wrong one. God’s gift and His burden should ride lightly on my shoulders—and when it does not, I can know surely that I’ve swapped out my heavy load for His light one.

No, God neither needs my work, nor the gifts He has given me. Frederick Buechner says, “God’s love’s all gift, for He has need of naught.” And slipping this burden reminds me of my royal state—that, by adoption, the king of this universe has claimed me as His own, and that His power, wealth, and even His deep joy can come upon me.

So what remains? Milton reminds me that I also serve when I can do only two things. I must stand up. I stand for truth, I stand simply so that I do not let whatever burden I bear bow me down to the ground. I stand up, vertical against this horizontal earth in which I will someday sleep, and in doing so, I get my head just that much closer to Heaven.

And then I wait. I cry “how long?” with the Psalmist. I wait for the coming kingdom, I wait for the next few words to write. I wait for good gifts to fall into my hands so that I may do my best this day and the days to come. I read poems and I make poems, even as I await the ones who need to hear them most, like water in a weary land.

And so with Milton, I acknowledge my want, my lack, the darkness in and around me. And patiently I wait for the day of the Lord. And until then, I celebrate songs in the darkness, where I stand and wait, and so serve God, who chideth not His children.

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