Understanding the Poem's Main Idea Through a Grammatical Analysis
While it is true that Milton begins his poem with an embedded adverbial clause of time (also called a dependent or subordinate clause), it is also true that there are a string of such subordinate clauses before the matrix clause (also called an independent clause) in which they are embedded. Thus, whereas it is true that the subject of Milton's opening sentence is delayed, it is delayed much further than generally recognized. This is important to understand because the correct grammatical analysis shows that the subject or main idea of Milton's sonnet is radically different from what it is otherwise thought to be. While some line-by-line analyses remain valid when analyzed within incorrect grammatical understanding, it is nonetheless true that Milton's overall key point is significantly altered. So, what--and where--is the matrix clause (the independent clause) that holds the key to Milton's thoughts? A brief grammatical analysis of the subordinate clauses that are embedded in the matrix clause will take us there.
- When I consider: adverbial clause of Time
- how my light is spent ...: adverbial clause of Manner [how: adv. about the manner, condition, or way in which something is done (Dictionary.com)]
- Ere half my days ...: (ere: before) adverbial of Time
- that one talent ...: adjectival clause
- though my soul ...: adverbial clause of Concession
- To serve therewith ...: infinitive to-clause
- and [to] present ...: [compounded] infinitive to-clause
- lest he returning ...: (lest: so that) adverbial clause of Purpose
The matrix clause is (1) a surprising distance from the first when-clause and is (2) the question Milton asks:
... "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask.
The significance of this grammatical construction is that Milton is not lamenting his lost sight, nor is he worried about the results of a talent not utilized, but rather that he is seeking to know whether the Christian God demands that which cannot be given. The point of the poem shifts away from a personal lament to a theological poetical apologetics: He is contemplating and delivering a defense of Christian theology. Thus, while the sestet (opening six lines) sets up the mood and tone for Milton's poetical apologetics, the octave (last eight lines) carries the import of his thoughts: Milton shuns a lament on his own loss and fears and instead offers a praise to the Christian Creator and God.
... "God doth not need
Either man's work or [the return of] his own gifts ...
They also serve who only stand and wait."
[Note that Milton reverses the Petrarchan order of the sonnet structure. Instead of an octave (8 lines) followed by a sestet (6 lines), Milton opts for a sestet followed by an octave, with the volta, or turn, at line 7 instead of at line 9.]
Grammatical analysis shows that the subject and main idea of the sonnet is expressed in the first two lines of the octave (last eight lines): "'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?' / I fondly ask." With this understanding in mind, some of the language of the sestet (the first six lines) takes on a different meaning. We'll analytically examine "death" (line 3), "more bent" (line 4) and "fondly" (line 8).
"... that one talent which is death to hide / Lodg'd with me useless," (3, 4): The introduction of "death" in relation to the Biblical allusion to the punishment for one talent that is buried and not utilized may lead to an analysis suggesting Milton fears his own spiritual punishment, or spiritual "death," for the uselessness of his blindness. On the contrary, since Milton is setting a tone in the sestet (1-6) for his ultimate praise in the octave (7-14) for the Christian God, the reference to "death" can best be analyzed as background giving cause for asking the main question (line 7), which can be paraphrased as: "Does God demand that which cannot be given?" In other words, Milton is not expressing a personal fear in lines 3 and 4 but rather enunciating part of what he is contemplating, "When I consider ...," contemplations that will be answered in the octave of praise.
"though my soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker," (4, 5): The common reaction is to analyze "more" as the adjective "more" measuring degree and to conclude that Milton is saying that (in paraphrase) now that he is blind, his desire to serve God is increased (possibly out of anguish that he now cannot serve or regret that he perhaps served inadequately before). Yet the grammatical structure inhibits this analysis because (1) the line is part of Milton's contemplations ("When I consider ..."), not part of a lament, and because (2) the adverbial meaning for "more" of "additionally" or "longer" effectively continues the tone and mood--established in the sestet--that set-up Milton's ultimate question: "'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'"
"I fondly ask": While some analyze "fondly" according to its archaic 14th century meaning of "foolish," this analysis can't logically be supported because there is no other archaic language employed: In this sonnet, Milton uses language that is contemporary to his time, not archaic. Consequently it is more fitting to analyze "fondly" as meaning "affectionately," a meaning well established in Milton's time since it dates from the 1590s. The result, then, is that we understand that Milton does not foolishly ask but rather he affectionately asks. This does several things: it incorporates the Petrarchan sonnet theme of love and it smoothly transitions to the tender reply "Patience" gives. Understanding "fondly" correctly as "affectionately" also dampens the temptation to think Milton is expressing a degree of exasperation or a degree of concern that he be judged fairly. It also contradicts finding an overt theme of trust in foolishness expressed but reinforces finding the theme of patience from the Spirit of God since "Patience" answers.