On His Blindness Themes
The main themes in “On His Blindness” are loss and human frailty, biblical authority and duty to God, and grace.
- Loss and human frailty: Milton explores the experience of losing his sight and worries about the implications of his blindness in his relationship with God.
- Biblical authority and duty to God: By referring to the Parable of the Talents, Milton expresses his fear that his blindness will keep him from working in God’s service.
- Grace: The personified Patience proves that God’s grace requires nothing of His people but their presence and obedience.
Last Updated on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288
Loss and Human Frailty
The sonnet “On His Blindness” is Milton’s first poetic exploration of his loss of sight and the implications of that loss to his life and religious obligations. In the years preceding his loss of sight, which is thought to be the result of glaucoma, Milton wrote several important defenses of the Protestant regime of Oliver Cromwell and Parliament. As he prepared to write what is known as the Second Defense of the English People, Milton told a friend that “the choice lay before me between the dereliction of a supreme duty or loss of eyesight,” an eventuality that overtook him in the late 1640s.
Having spent his life thus far by writing, Milton is acutely aware that “my light is spent, / Ere half my days”—that is, he has lost his eyesight before he has even reached the midpoint in his life, a tragedy for a man who believes that his greatest talent lies in writing in the service of God. From a practical perspective, Milton understands that he now lives in a “dark world and wide,” emphasizing that his blindness places him at the mercy of an overwhelming and dangerous world.
Even though the sonnet ultimately explores Milton’s spiritual relationship with God, at its beginning, his thoughts are centered on the physical reality of this new “dark world” that he must learn to negotiate as a man weakened by blindness. At its onset, before he knows whether he will overcome this disability, Milton’s sense of loss and the realization of his new frailty is all the stronger because his loss of sight has no apparent cause and no known cure. In Milton’s Puritan belief system, an affliction like blindness would have been perceived as coming from God, a belief he articulates later in the sonnet when he accuses God of denying his light (or sight). Whatever the cause of his blindness, Milton fears that the usefulness of his life has been diminished along with his sight.
Biblical Authority and Duty to God
As a Puritan, Milton’s religious life is governed by the Bible, and this sonnet is framed by two allusions to biblical authority: one that poses an existential problem for Milton’s soul and one that provides a solution. The Bible, not merely a general reference for a Christian life, sets forth the precise paradigm that a Puritan must follow in order to achieve, through God’s grace, a sanctified life. Milton knows, for example, that he is doomed to go to hell unless God extends His grace to save him. This grace is in no way guaranteed to Milton (or anyone else)—and it, not Milton’s actions or religious convictions, will determine whether he will reside with God in heaven or burn in hell. Still, every Puritan believes that a life lived in accord with biblical instruction signals the possibility of salvation. Every word of the Bible, then, has some practical application to Milton’s life.
The line “that one Talent which is death to hide” alludes to the Parable of Talents in Matthew 25:14–30. This parable, used for teaching mankind how best to use God’s gifts to enact His will, describes a wealthy master about to go on a journey who gives five talents (silver coins of a specific value) to one servant, two to the second servant, and one to the third—“each according to their abilities.” During the master’s absence, the servants with five and two talents, respectively, double their holdings, but the servant with one, who fears his master, buries his talent.
When the master returns, he is pleased with the first two servants, who have increased their talents, but casts out the third servant for having made no use of his talent. The third servant has also made the cardinal error of judging his master as both a hard man and, more important, one who reaps what he does not sow (that is, takes from others what is not his by virtue of his own labor). The parable is widely interpreted to mean that God expects mankind to use its skills (God’s gifts) profitably in God’s service. An alternative (and not widely accepted) interpretation is that the two servants who double their “gifts” have done so through prohibited money lending—a sin—and the third servant is the one who follows biblical law to the letter. This interpretation is not inconsistent with the poem’s end, in which Patience explains what God expects from mankind.
In Milton’s point of view, his blindness now threatens his ability to meet the obligations established according to the traditional interpretation of the parable. Like the servant who buries his master’s gift of one silver coin, fearing to lose it and thereby incurring his master’s wrath, Milton fears that his blindness might cause God to perceive Milton as hiding, rather than increasing, God’s gift. The Bible, through the parable, is a roadmap to an appropriate life, not just a recommendation. Milton perceives his position relative to God to be perilous. He can no longer increase his “talent”; as a result, he can no longer follow the biblical injunction to use his gift—writing—in God’s service.
God has not left mankind without help to interpret the correct route through life. Milton begins to question whether God expects him to contribute his full measure in spite of his disability—“Doth God exact day-labour” (that is, hired labor) from a person when he has taken away their eyesight? Patience, aware that Milton is treading dangerous ground by doubting God, promptly steps in to stop Milton’s “murmur” (an Old French word meaning complaint) before God reacts to Milton’s insolence. Milton’s tone in asking whether God “exact[s] day-labour” places God in the role of an overseer, a shift in diction from respect to insolence that puts Milton in a precarious position with a God who can both punish and reward. Patience, acting as an intermediary between a suddenly aggressive Milton and God, takes over to explain to Milton both God’s nature and his expectation of mankind. The personification of Patience is God’s freely-given grace, which saves Milton from escalating his intemperate question to a doomed attack on God.
God’s Expectations of Mankind
Patience reminds Milton that God does not need or expect assistance from mankind: God’s only requirement for mankind’s service is that mankind must “Bear his mild yoke.” This is an allusion to Matthew 11:28–30, in which God instructs men to bear their afflictions without complaint, because God’s “yoke is easy, and [His] burden is light.” The implicit point is that mankind, like a beast of burden, exists to serve God through obedience, and God’s powers are so great that He sends obedient people over the land and sea “without rest” to accomplish his goals.
In what may seem to be an unexpected characterization from a Puritan poet—whose fellow Puritans have been fighting to destroy the “divine” rights of a king (Charles I)—Patience announces that God’s “state / Is Kingly.” Patience judiciously describes God as king-like rather than as an omnipotent king, a subtle choice in diction that Milton may have made to avoid the connotations inherent in “King” among his likely readers. More important, however, in order to allay fears that Milton’s gifts, now useless to God, make him unworthy in God’s eyes, Patience tells Milton that God also treasures those “who only stand and wait,” another confirmation that God’s powers are not dependent upon mankind’s comparatively frail ones. Milton’s value is in his ability to bear God’s “mild yoke”—not in his eyesight.