On His Blindness Summary

Summary and Analysis

John Milton’s poem “On His Blindness” is an autobiographical sonnet in which Milton meditates on his own loss of sight. For most of his life, Milton had been able to see perfectly, but his late-night reading and writing on behalf of the government of the short-lived English Republic, in which he held a very prominent position, helped ruin his eyesight. This sonnet—written in the “Petrarchan” rhyme scheme associated with the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca—is divided into an eight-line “octave” and a six-line “sestet.” The octave rhymes a/b/b/a/a/b/b/a. The sestet rhymes c/d/e/c/d/e. The sonnet is therefore a typical Petrarchan sonnet in form, but in subject matter, the poem departs from the topics usually associated with Petrarchan poems. Petrarch (the English version of Petrarca’s name) was most famous for writing about love; Milton departs from that conventional topic to deal with a very practical, very physical problem, but a problem with many broader spiritual implications.

By beginning line one with the word “When," Milton immediately signals that he is opening with a subordinate clause (a dependent clause) that introduces the main idea to follow. Beginning the poem this way creates a certain suspense; the main idea is postponed so that we have to continue reading in anticipation of its eventual arrival. Shakespeare also often used this kind of sentence pattern in constructing his own sonnets. By opening with a dependent clause, Milton heightens our sense of anticipation by delaying the key statement.

The word “consider” implies careful, rational thought rather than purely emotional reaction. Here and throughout the poem, the speaker uses his reason, which Renaissance Christians considered one of the greatest gifts that God had bestowed upon human beings. The ability of humans to reason, they believed, linked them to God and distinguished them from animals. The speaker feels that his “light” is “spent” (extinguished) in several senses of the word “light.” This word clearly alludes, at least eventually, to the speaker’s loss of sight, but "light" may also suggest one’s intelligence. The opening line may at first seem to mean “When I think about how I have used my intelligence,” but it soon comes to mean “When I ponder how my ability to see has become extinguished.” This latter meaning is, of course, foreshadowed by the poem’s title.

The idea of losing one’s sight is obviously a deeply troubling one. The blind person is suddenly at risk in all kinds of ways. The speaker in the poem feels vulnerable; he can no longer literally see his own way or easily protect himself from dangers. The special tragedy of this particular speaker is that he has lost his sight at an unusually early stage of life. Rather than becoming blind when elderly, he has become blind in middle age. He now inhabits a world that seems “dark” (2) in at least two senses: it is no longer physically visible, and it is a world full of sin and spiritual darkness. The world, moreover, is not only dark but also “wide”: the speaker will somehow have to navigate, both literally and figuratively, in a world which, because of its width or breadth, will prose many dangers. If the speaker were confined to a single dark room, he might quickly and easily learn his way around. Instead, he will have to make his way through a “world” that is both “dark” and “wide” and thus especially challenging.

In line three, the speaker refers to “one talent,” thereby alluding to the famous passage in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30) in which a master gives three servants different numbers of “talents” (coins) before he departs. The servant given five talents invests them wisely and earns five in return, which he gives to his master when the master reappears. Similarly, the same happens with the servant given two talents. However, the servant given one talent, mistrustful of his master, buries that talent so that he will risk losing...

(The entire section is 1640 words.)