What does "they also serve who only stand and wait" mean?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Essentially, these lines mean that those who are patient and bide their time waiting to be asked to do something are just as useful to God as those who are always rushing about in service of him "without rest." Milton is reassuring himself that every man has his place in the world, and we are all different, able to serve God in different ways.

In Milton's case, his concern is that he will be less useful to God, and less of a Christian, because he has gone blind, making his one talent—that of writing—seemingly "useless." But he reminds himself that God does not need "man's work," provided that his servants on earth are still loyal to him and are prepared to wait for him to call them. While some serve God in active ways as befits their active bodies, there are others who provide their own form of service, and God will not be any the less worshipped because of it—he has plenty of active people to do his bidding. And of course, as Milton reassures himself that he is not useless, he also proves it: in the writing of this sonnet, he makes it evident that his talent is not lost simply because he is blind—he can still dictate to others. He can still serve God by writing about God's power and his own dedication to him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How can a person be serving God by only standing and waiting? Milton compares God to a great king who has thousands of servants to do whatever he orders.

...his State Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o're Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and waite.

Naturally when a king employed so many servants there would be some who did not have errands or other services to perform. These supernumeraries, however, would be required to be on duty. They would do two things: stand at attention and wait for orders. Milton is saying that he is performing his duty by waiting attentively for God to give him an order, which for Milton would come in the form of an inspiration to write a poem or an essay, since that was his one talent. In spite of his blindness, Milton wrote many great works by dictating them and having them read back to him for editing. One of the pieces he obviously composed while blind was the sonnet "On His Blindness" itself. Milton dictated the whole of Paradise Lost to various aides including his daughters from 1658 to 1664, and dictated Samson Agonistes on the blind Samson in 1671. He said that the lines came to him during the night. He was able to remember most of them and dictated them the following morning. In addition to his creative talent, Milton had formidable memory, will power, and sense of duty.

The sonnet "On His Blindness" is referring to the parable of the talents in Matthew 14-30:

14 ¶For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.

17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial