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."
On His Blindness eText - eText
When I consider how my light is spent
This is the only line in the sonnet in which Milton breaks the iambic meter. Obviously these four words are intended to be read with stress on "Lodg'd" and then on "useless." This is appropriate since the words are intended to sound like a cry of anguish in an otherwise uniformly tranquil and metrically regular poem betokening Milton's "Patience" and his conviction, as expressed in the beautiful concluding line, that "They also serve who only stand and wait."
Milton's "one talent," of course, was his poetic genius. Why did he say it was "useless"? His main problem must have been that although he could create poetry in his mind and even dictate it to an aide, he could not read it and therefore could not revise it. He was somewhat like the great Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who could write beautiful music after he was completely deaf but could not hear his own compositions.
"On His Blindness" is Milton's most famous sonnet, and probably his most famous short poem. We not only feel great pity for this sincerely dedicated man, but he makes us understand what it feels like to be blind.
This is Milton asking the question, not God chiding. The long and complex sentence beginning with "When I consider how my light is spent," leads the poet to
fondly, or foolishly, ask: "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" and that first sentence on the sonnet ends with a full stop. All the rest of the sonnet is supposedly spoken by an invisible spirit or angel he calls Patience. Milton's conclusion suggests that he has made appropriate use of his "one talent" and that God will not scold or "chide" him for wasting it.
Note that Milton's protest against his personal loss is mild. The word "murmur" is appropriate to the overall tone of this sonnet. He is resigned to accept whatever fate God imposes upon him. This is also indicated two lines later in the words "mild yoke." When Milton concludes with the words, "They also serve who only stand and wait," he seems to be suggesting that he can serve God by serving as an example of patience, faith, and humility.
How does this sonnet apply to us? It further suggests that each of us is given one or several talents which we are obliged to identify, utilize, and develop throughout our lives or else experience disappointment, frustration, and failure. The Bhagavad-Gita says something similar:
In the beginning
The Lord of beings
Created all men,
To each his duty.
"Do this," He said,
"And you shall prosper."
The problem for many of us is to discover our talent, or talents. Doing this may involve a lot of trial and error. But it is obviously a matter of the utmost importance.
Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.
A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Milton says that God's state is kingly, which of course it is. He owns the entire earth and everyone is his servant. Being such a powerful monarch, God would be imagined living in a magnificent palace with hundreds of liveried servants. Among those servants would be those who did nothing but stand at attention at doorways and in various other stations throughout the building, doing nothing but perhaps waiting for an order to be given from on high. In the last line of his sonnet Milton seems to be suggesting the image of servants who are "serving" by performing their duty of standing and waiting. God has so many servants doing things for him, including thousands who "speed / And post o'er land and ocean without rest," that it is understandable that He would have other servants whose orders are merely to stand and wait at attention until they are called upon. But they are serving by waiting if that is what God wants them to do.