Yet another Poetry Friday disguising as a Theology Thursday! Poetry is great and so is theology–I can’t resist the urge to combine them. Neither, apparently, could John Milton. Today, we’re taking a look at his famous “Sonnet on his Blindness.”
First, some background.
According to my edition of Read-Aloud Poems for Young People (a must-have for those wishing to
inflict instill love of poetry in children):
John Milton became blind when he was forty-three years old, but despite this he went on to compose many great poems until his death twenty-three years later, in 1674. He wrote this moving sonnet in 1652, when he had been blind for about a year, at the time that his great epic, Paradise Lost, was taking shape in his mind.
You’ll see this poem called a few different things–either “Sonnet on his Blindness,” “On His Blindness,” or “When I consider how my light is spent.” In this post, I’m sticking with “Sonnet on his Blindness” because that’s what my book calls it.
With that information, let’s read the poem itself.
Now, let’s discuss this, line by line.
“When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide”
Since Milton is blind, it’s ironic that he cares how his “light”–either his waking hours or the light of a candle–is spent, especially since he goes on to say that his world is “dark.”
“And that one talent, which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, thought my soul more bent
Therewith to serve my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning, chide:”
These four lines have two different meanings. The “talent” Milton refers to is his writing, and he hates that his blindness limits him from using it, even though he longs now more than ever to serve God through his writing.
This is the way I’d always interpreted it until, quite by accident, I learned from Wikipedia that these lines are also referencing Christ’s parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27. (I avoid looking at other analyses of poems before doing these kinds of posts; I had gone to Wikipedia for the text of the poem, not for ideas to steal!) In the parable, the man who hid his talent (as in currency, not skill) was rebuked by his returning master. Milton does not want the same thing to happen to him.
“‘Doth God exact day labor, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies:
‘God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. […]'”
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the phrase “day labor, light denied.” Isn’t it wonderful? The rhythm, the alliteration, the meaning!
These lines remind us of the futility of legalism. God did not create us because He needed us to do something for Him. He doesn’t need us, because He’s omnipotent and infinite.
Matthew 11:28-30, referenced in line 10, says:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
That’s not to say that the Christian life will be easy. It won’t. But the oppressive yoke of legalism should never burden us. We can’t help ourselves or God through checking things off our spiritual to-do lists.
“‘[…] His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post ‘er land and ocean without rest.
They also serve who only stand and wait.'”
The last few lines paint an awe-inspiring picture of God’s greatness. The image further heightens the absurdity of suggesting that God somehow needs us. We can serve Him in our daily lives, whether we’re writing sonnets that resonate hundreds of years later, proclaiming the Word in far-flung places, or standing and waiting for God to give us His call. Notice that Milton says “stand and wait”, not “sit and wait.” Standing implies a readiness to rush out the door at a moment’s notice. It’s proactive patience, not apathy.
What do you think about “Sonnet on his Blindness”? Is there anything my interpretation missed? Let me know in comments!
Can’t get enough of Theology Thursday? Read all my Theology Thursday posts here.
I know this isn’t technically Poetry Friday–but if you want more poetry posts, read them here!