On His Blindness Analysis

  • For “On His Blindness,” John Milton employs the Petrarchan sonnet form. In this kind of sonnet, the poet presents a problem in the octave (the first eight lines) and solves it in the sestet (the final six lines). The “turn” between these two movements occurs within this poem’s eighth line, slightly earlier than is traditional.
  • The poem alludes to two passages from the Bible: the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30) and the description of God’s “yoke” (Matthew 11:29–30).
  • Milton modulates the rhythm of his syntax using caesurae and carefully deployed enjambment and end-stopping.

Analysis

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Last Reviewed on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476

“On His Blindness,” which was written sometime between 1652 and 1655 and published in 1673, is John Milton’s first poem to explore the implications of his blindness on his religious obligations. His sight had been failing for several years, and in 1653, Milton told a friend that, as he prepared to write another in a series of pamphlets defending the Protestant executioners of Charles I, “the choice lay before me between dereliction of a supreme duty and loss of eyesight.”

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For his exploration of blindness, Milton uses the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet form, a fourteen-line poem consisting of an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. Although Petrarch’s sonnets generally center on matters of courtly love, the form provides a pattern for any subject or argument that poses a problem and then presents a solution. The octave sets out Milton’s problem—the fear that his blindness threatens his duty to God—and the sestet, with the help of Patience, solves the problem.

The Petrarchan sonnet employs a rhyme scheme for the octave of abba abba, incorporating a brace rhyme (bb) in mid-position to enhance the flow of words, and the sestet usually uses cde cde, cdc dcd, or cde dce (in Milton’s case, the sestet is cde cde). Sonnets in English often use iambic pentameter, the most natural meter for English, in which there are five metrical “feet” that each consist of an unaccented before an accented syllable. (For example, “exact” equals one iambic foot.) With a few exceptions, Milton’s sonnet is in consistent iambic pentameter.

Although alliteration, assonance, and consonance are present in this poem, Milton’s verse does not rely heavily on these techniques. The sonnet is, however, heavily allusive, depending on biblical echoes to establish its problem and provide the solution. Another poetic technique on full display in the sonnet is that of enjambment: that is, run-on verses that continue sense and syntactical unity without punctuation between one line and the next. Enjambed lines allow the poet to create a flow of sentence and sentiment that moves the reader smoothly through the poem until an end-stopped line momentarily halts progress. As an adjunct to enjambment, Milton also uses caesurae frequently to create slight pauses in syntax that slow the reader’s progress and reinforce the sentiment of a verse. Milton’s syntax, especially in the octave, is dense with subordinate clauses and phrases, including inverted word order, but the sestet is less complex syntactically. His diction throughout is predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

The sonnet’s octave begins with a very long periodic sentence in which the independent clause—“I fondly [i.e., foolishly] ask”—is at the end of a series of phrases and dependent clauses, effectively moving the reader forward and anticipating the action of the sentence. The opening line also employs a clever piece of wordplay (or paronomasia) that introduces the concept of loss:

When I consider how my light is spent . . .

Milton’s readers are aware of his blindness (light is synonymous with sight) and his history of writing complex political pamphlets to defend the Protestants who executed Charles I against accusations of regicide. Milton makes the subtle point that he has “spent” his time in God’s service, and more important, that his “light,” or sight, has been spent in this work. The result of this expenditure of effort and sight is that he is now completely blind in a large and dangerous world, a state elegantly captured in the arresting alliteration and consonance of “this dark world and wide.” This phrase is doubly powerful as an image because Milton has inverted the normal adjective position of wide, emphasizing the world’s overwhelming danger to a blind man. The consonance of the d sounds and the alliteration of the initial w sounds create a phrase that lingers in the memory and begs to be spoken out loud.

The third line of the octave includes one of two powerful biblical allusions that drive this sonnet. Milton’s problem is not his blindness, per se, but that he can no longer employ God’s gift—his writing ability—profitably, as he is required to do in accord with Matthew 25:14–30, the Parable of the Talents. He alludes to the parable with the line “And that one Talent which is death to hide,” by which he means the parable’s imposition of punishment for the one servant who hides, rather than tries to increase, the silver talent given to him by his master. The parable creates an insurmountable problem for Milton: like the two servants who increase the gifts of silver from their master, when Milton has his sight, he can increase the value of his writing by continuing to write in defense of Parliament. In his blindness, however, he can no longer use, let alone increase, his talent. In a literal sense, the parable dooms him. As the next two lines make clear, Milton’s goal is to follow the lesson of the Parable of the Talents:

. . . though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide. . . .

The image of “my soul more bent / To serve” may have evoked a familiar sight to many of his readers who fought in the Parliamentary army in the English Civil War: an English longbow bent and ready to unloose its arrows in God’s service. Milton is clearly concerned that, should God appear, Milton’s “account” (a metaphor from commerce) of God’s gift will be found to be inadequate.

At the end of the octave, but before the resolution of the sestet, the speaker addresses God directly out of his frustration:

“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. . . .”

These verses are especially critical to the sonnet’s resolution. Milton, in effect, takes his own fate in his hands by addressing God directly, known in poetic terms as an apostrophe, in diction that is both combative and insolent. Here, Milton characterizes God as a taskmaster who uses “day-labour”—that is, hired men who work for money rather than faith—and, at the same time, deprives them of sight. Milton is again playing with words in juxtaposing “day” labor with the absence of light, but more importantly, he is dangerously close to denigrating God and trivializing work done in God’s service. His insolence immediately triggers the intervention of the personification of Patience, who takes over to quiet the speaker’s murmur, or complaint.

The traditional Petrarchan sonnet’s “turn,” or resolution, usually occurs after an end-stopped eighth line, clearly ending the octave. In “On His Blindness,” however, the turn occurs at an end-stop within line 8:

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent . . .

The punctuation between “ask” and “But Patience” is an example of caesura, a distinct break in a poetic line designed either to create a break in the middle of a metrical foot or, as in this case, to alter the rhythm of the line and signal the end of the octave. The sestet then begins in the middle of line 8, when Patience abruptly intercedes to prevent a disaster. Patience explains to Milton that God, in His majesty, needs nothing from man except his obedience. This obedience comes in the form of willingly accepting God’s “mild yoke,” an allusion to Matthew 11:29–30, in which God enjoins mankind to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The intervention of Patience de-escalates a confrontation with God that would not end well for the speaker.

Using two of only four end-stopped lines in the sonnet, Patience resolves the speaker’s anxiety about his loss of sight and his ultimate usefulness to God:

. . . 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.

First, in describing God as “kingly,” Patience treads on shaky ground; after all, the poem’s audience includes the executioners of Charles I, who do not think of monarchs in kind terms. Rather than proclaiming God’s absolute monarchy, however, Patience cautiously describes a God with king-like attributes, softening the reality that God is an absolute, but mild and humble, monarch. Second, Patience confirms God’s omnipotence by observing that, with a word, He sends men over the world to carry out his will. And, using the last end-stopped line, Patience brings the sonnet to an abrupt end with a startling affirmation—“They also serve who only stand and wait”—thus assuring Milton that God accepts his blindness and requires only his obedience.

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