On His Blindness Summary
In "On His Blindness," poet John Milton explores his experiences with blindness and religious faith.
- Milton went blind working for the English Republic. His service to the government required that he extensively read and write. This caused him to lose his sight.
- The poem takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet. These traditionally focus on love and romance, but Milton subverts this in order to explore his relationship with God.
- Milton fears that his blindness will prevent him from doing God's work. The personification of Patience tells him that even his idleness is useful to God if he continues to have faith.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1627
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 abba abba. The sestet rhymes cde cde. 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 nothing on his master’s behalf. His master is angered by such selfishness and sloth, and the “unprofitable servant” is condemned. The speaker in Milton’s poem fears that he, too, will be condemned for failing to use his “talent” (3) profitably in God’s service. ("Talent," of course, puns with "ability.") The irony is that Milton lost his sight precisely because he was trying to serve God (and the English Commonwealth) to the very best of his abilities. Milton’s speaker fears a kind of spiritual “death” (3) because either he or his talent (or both) has proven “useless.”
Ironically but admirably, the speaker in Milton’s poem feels more “bent” (6) to serve God despite his blindness; he is more determined, more dedicated, and more inclined to serve, but he fears that his blindness will make it difficult for him to do so. He hopes he will be able to present to God a “true account" of his service, and he hopes to do so before God, like the master in the parable, returns to “chide” him for being unprofitable (6). In an allusion to Matthew 20:1–16, the speaker “fondly” (foolishly) asks whether God expects him to perform “day-labor” in the dark. Although the speaker considers such a query foolish, the mere fact that he raises the question implies a bit of exasperation, a bit of concern about whether he will be judged fairly by God. Paradoxically, the speaker’s willingness even to raise such a question suggests an ultimate trust in God. He seems to assume that he will not be punished merely for voicing his concerns; he seems to assume that he can voice his honest thoughts without needing to fear retaliation. He can be frank, because he perceives God as a god of mercy and love.
The speaker claims that a personified Patience intervenes to “prevent / That murmur” (8-9), but of course (paradoxically) the speaker has just now expressed that murmur, as the word “replies” acknowledges. God does not speak openly in the poem; rather, the voice of God speaks through the speaker’s own patience, one of the speaker’s own most godly traits. The poem has now become a kind of dialogue between the part of the speaker that is tempted to complain and the part of the speaker that is willing to wait on God and trust Him to do what is good and right. The emphasis on “Patience” here foreshadows the very end of the poem.
The speaker’s patience responds by enunciating the Protestant idea, associated with John Calvin, that God is totally self-sufficient and needs nothing at all from human beings. He does not need man’s “work,” nor does he even need “his own gifts” (10), given by Him to man and returned to Him with profit by man, as in the parable of the talents. God, in short, needs nothing at all from people. Instead, they depend upon Him utterly; the only way for them to receive salvation is through God’s freely given grace, a key tenet of Calvinism. The best way to serve God is simply to “Bear his mild yoke” (11). In other words, the best way to be a good Christian and human is to behave like a completely tamed and contented work animal, such as an obedient ox. However, the speaker here alludes once more to the Bible, this time to Matthew 11:28–20:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
This Biblical passage, far from making God sound like a hard and exacting taskmaster, instead makes Him sound like a thoughtful, caring, humble caretaker who loves and comforts the creatures who serve Him.
Nevertheless, God’s “state”—both His inherent condition and the nature of His rule—is “Kingly” (11-12), a word that implies His autonomy, His glory, His greatness, His exalted power, and His dignity. Thousands (especially angels) do His “bidding,” and not only do they perform His commands, but they also perform them with “speed” (12). They can move with utter quickness, partly because they are sighted and can avoid any obstacle before them. The speaker in the poem, of course, can no longer move with such speed, at least not physically. The angels move about the wide world, “land and ocean,” rapidly and without tiring, unlike the handicapped speaker, who is not now capable of rapid motion. However, the poem ends on a note of supreme consolation and reassurance: “They also serve who only stand and wait” (14). In other words, rapid movement is not required to serve God truly. Merely waiting for God to decide how one can be most useful can also be true service to God who really needs no servants. The life of the mind can be as valuable, in God’s eyes, as the active life. Since God needs nothing, the mere fact of standing and waiting can be sufficient service in God’s eyes, especially if one waits with sincere hope and faith for the Second Coming of Christ.
Appropriately enough, the last two words of the poem—the words that bring it to a halt—are “stand and wait.” The poem ultimately expresses Milton’s faith that God will know best how to use him despite Milton’s blindness. In the same way that a soldier standing on guard duty can be at least as worthy as an active soldier, if not even more worthy, so, Milton concludes, can he best serve God by patiently accepting the fate God has imposed upon him. Faith is ultimately more important than any kind of active service.