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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.

Are Themes of Judgement and Trust Included?

It is difficult to discuss the possible inclusion of the themes of concern over being fairly judged and feeling ultimate trust in God in relation to this sonnet. One cannot argue that Milton does not feel this concern or that he does not feel this trust because the former is a common concern, since humans are all too fallible, while the latter is a foundational precept of Christian faith. Nonetheless, grammatical analysis cannot support the overt inclusion of these themes in this sonnet. One can perhaps interpretively read these themes into the poem, but a strong textual analytical argument cannot be made to support the interpretation.

The idea that Milton may feel dread (concern) about whether he might be judged unfairly comes from the mistaken analysis that this sonnet is a lament for Milton's loss of sight coupled with a complaint against the loss of his one talent. If the main idea of the poem is understood to be this complaint and lament, it is understandable that a reader would project an interpretation that Milton must therefore feel concern about his spiritual judgement. It is understandable that a reader would then also project courage onto the poet who dares to question God and a degree of ultimate trust that allows him to do so. This is especially so if "more bent" and "fondly" are defined as "more inclined than previously" and "foolishly" rather than being defined accurately as "continuingly inclined as before" and "affectionately" ("fondly" defined as "foolish" was outdated for 200 years by the time Milton wrote this sonnet in, to him, modern diction).

... that one talent which is death to hide  
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent  
To serve therewith my Maker, and [to] present  
My true account, lest he returning chide,  
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"  
I fondly ask. ...

The themes in the quoted passage that are supported through an analysis of the grammar and of the sonnet structure are instead related to (1) God's demands in face of external constraints and (2) the desire to serve faithfully. The primary theme is lodged in the main point, which occupies the volta--or the turn from the position stated to the answer given--in line 7 (noting that Milton has inverted the Petrarchan structure and placed the sestet first and the octave last): [paraphrase] Does God demand that which cannot be give without allowing an alternative for service? ("Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?") An alternative is suggested in "day-labour," which implies an alternative, such as night-labour, where the loss of light (i.e., sight) is less material. That an alternative is suggested is confirmed in the octave response from Patience who says that they "also serve" who "stand and wait."

The secondary theme is expressed in the opening sestet and might be paraphrased: I have the continuing desire to serve and to present a faithful account of my talent in the face of obstacles. The elegance and compression of Milton's language makes a paraphrase awkward and clumsy by comparison, but the relevant clauses in prose would correctly read: When I consider ... [that] my soul is still inclined to serve my Maker [with my talent] and still inclined to present a sincere expression of my talent (so as not to give Him reason to scold me), I affectionately ask Him ...." To return to our opening argument, while it may be tempting to impose an interpretation emphasizing themes of a concern over judgement and ultimate trust, we do so at the loss of Milton's more important expressed themes: (1) how to faithfully proceed sincerely in the face of obstacles and (2) does God demand what cannot be given with no alternative provided? The answers to the questions Milton raises lie in lines 11 and 14:

(1) How to faithfully proceed?: "'... [they] who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.'" (10, 11)

(2) Does God demand without an alternative given?: "'They also serve who only stand and wait.'" (14)

Explaining Some Difficult Language Used

Some of the language Milton uses is prone to misunderstanding, which affects readers' ability to recognize and grasp the themes and main idea that he is communicating. Some of this confusing language is discussed below.

PATIENCE: "Patience" used here is not a personal trait, rather a Fruit of the Spirit granted (given) by the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit. The poet affectionately ("fondly") queries God (line 7), and one of the Fruits of the Spirit, personified, answers back. Thus the answer to the important query Milton asks is given objectively from God's Spirit not subjectively from the poet's self. 

PREVENT MURMUR: A "murmur" is a complaint, "a private expression of discontent." Asking a question ("Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?") and complaining cannot be equated: they are different. Patience answers the poet so that a lingering, unanswered query does not turn to a complaint of discontent: Patience replies to prevent the upwelling of "that" potential murmur.

PATIENCE REPLIES: A dialogue develops between the poet and the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, "patience." Here patience is personified as "Patience" and given human characteristics, including the power of discourse. "Patience" is neither a human trait nor one of the Seven Virtues but rather the gift of God's indwelling Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). It is important to understand that when Patience speaks, it is not a trait of the poet's personality or faith nor is it a virtue exercised by the poet that is speaking: the dialogue is not an internal subjective one. Rather the dialogue is an objective one carried out between an agent--a fruit--of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, and the poet. This gives credence and universality to the answer the poet receives to his question: The answer is that God provides and accepts alternative service to that service which can no longer be given.

MILD YOKE: A "yoke"--a device borne upon the necks of oxen which are used to do labor--signifies constraints in direction, resources, labors: the oxen go where they are constrained to go and do what their constraints permit them to do. Patience says that God's constraints ("yoke") are "mild" although we feel their weight, such as the weight of blindness, and although they constrain our directions, resources and labors.

They also serve who only stand and wait

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.

 

Day-labour

When Milton asks, "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" he seems to be using a term common in his day. "Day-labour" would apparently mean common outdoor labor performed from sun-up to sundown. A person who performed this kind of work would have been called a "day-labourer," and that term may still be heard in some places in America today. What Milton seems to be asking, rhetorically, and half-jokingly, or fondly, or foolishly, is, "How can God ask me to work in the daytime and then not give me any daylight?" If he is making a joke, it is a grim joke--which is probably why he says "fondly" rather than "jokingly."