Milton - On His Blindness

John Milton's "On His Blindness"

Though blind when he composed his greatest poetry, John Milton could think in iambic pentameter. Over a period of four to five years he dictated to one or another of his daughters the epic poem Paradise Lost.
A shorter sequel, Paradise Regained, and the drama Samson Agonistes followed soon after. Ludwig van Beethoven, stone deaf, wrote and orchestrated symphonies he could hear only in his mind. One wonders if Michelangelo, sightless, could have sculpted the Pieta and the statue of David using only his hands to feel the marble he was shaping to exquisite perfection.

It seems false modesty when, in the sonnet "On His Blindness," Milton refers to his genius and virtuosity as mere talent. But that would be to restrict the galaxies of meaning revolving around the word "talent" and other deceptively ordinary words such as "prevent" and "wait."

The poem commences with the poet's consideration of the second half of his life, which will be spent in darkness. He began to lose his sight in his early 30s. Doctors warned him against persisting in the eye-straining labor of writing pamphlets and public statements in defense and support of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime in which he served as Latin Secretary, a post similar to our Secretary of State. Milton chose to continue. He went totally blind in 1651 at age 43.

The man did not have an easy life. Milton's first wife, 17-year-old Mary Powell, fled to her parents' home immediately after the marriage ceremony and stayed there for several years. Milton managed a reconciliation, and Mary bore him three daughters and a son who died in infancy. She died three days after the birth of the third daughter.

He sought child-rearing aid from his mother-in-law, a woman who strongly disliked him. The daughters also found him overbearing and tyrannical. The second wife Milton married had little time to win over her stepdaughters, since she died in childbirth within two years.

By the time of his third marriage, his daughters were adolescents, angered by their father's demeaning and demanding treatment. They were forced to read to their blind parent in languages they didn't understand. He did not even inform them that he was marrying again. When they learned of the coming nuptials from a servant, middle daughter Mary is said to have remarked that it was interesting news, but more welcome would be news of his death.

In 1660 the restoration of the Stuart line of kings left Milton in dire circumstances. Because of his blindness, and perhaps the intercession of his former assistant Andrew Marvell, he escaped execution but was heavily fined and forfeited most of his property.

This poem was written in either 1652 or 1656, while he was still active in the Cromwell regime. We find him torn between the need to contribute his literary mastery to matters political and the wish to fulfill the plan that the Almighty had in mind when He gifted him with his literary talent.

In the gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25, are parables involving preparation for Judgment Day and the second coming of Christ. We know not when that day will come but we must be ready. In the main parable, a lord goes off on a lengthy journey after distributing money (talents) to three servants. The servant who received five talents traded, invested, made loans with usurious interest and doubled their worth. So also did the one who was given two talents. But he who received just one talent buried and hid the money for safekeeping. When the lord returned, he blessed and rewarded those who had doubled their money. But the man who in fear buried his money was called wicked and slothful, and he was told to give that money to the man who had ten talents. The unprofitable servant was then cast into outer darkness, where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

The central lesson is that men must actively perform as they have seen their master perform, even if such activity involves usury and less-than-fair dealing. We see also that the term talent has its narrow modern denotation but also means money (in Biblical times a talent was a coin) and also faith.

Milton knows that despite his physical debility, it is spiritual death not to actively employ his God-given talents "lest He, returning, chide." He is about to ask foolishly ("fondly") if God expects "day-labor" of one who is blind. But Patience silences his complaint ("murmur"), and declares that those who silently bear their misfortunes serve God in doing so. Then comes the well-known concluding line with its myriad of interpretations: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

In the sonnet's octave the poet misinterprets the Biblical parable and querulously argues that God should not expect the labor of an ordinary man from one who is blind. The pivotal volta meaning emerges with the final word "prevent." Patience intervenes with "prevenient grace," a term rarely heard today that means a divinely bestowed power that operates on the human will when one is about to reject God. It is this prevenience that forestalls the rebellious complaint before it can be uttered. He "consider(s)" in line one, but the sestet is a reconsideration lending a sense of circularity to the poem.

The concluding word "wait" means simultaneously to "await" expectantly and inactively; to "attend" or serve as a waiter or waitress; to "be available" as in "coffee and brandy wait your pleasure in the drawing room"; and to "pause and consider." That last verb provides closure to the verse. The word "verse" comes from Latin and means a turning, as in "reverse" and "converse" and completes the circle by its near repetition of the verb in the poem's first line.

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