Themes and Meanings

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Sonnet XIX is deeply concerned with the plight of one who wishes, and is even determined, to do God’s will but, because of circumstances beyond his own control, finds that he may not be able to continue doing it. He wonders if he will be punished by God for not being able to use to the fullest the talent with which God has endowed him.

The metaphor around which the sonnet is developed is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In this parable, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a master, who, before departing to a faraway place, distributes among three servants various sums of money (talents). They are to invest or otherwise use the money to earn more so that they can report a worthy gain when the master returns. Two of the servants do so: The one with five talents produces ten, and the servant with two doubles his. The third servant, however, is fearful and hides his one talent for fear that, if he fails to use it profitably, he might lose even the little that he has. When the master returns and hears his excuse for not having increased what he was given, he is angry and commands that the unprofitable servant be cast “into outer darkness.”

Milton believed fervently that his genius for writing was a God-given talent, and when he became blind, it was a reasonable reaction to wonder what consequence there might be for not using his gifts in God’s service. The poem proceeds, then, from grief through questioning—“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”—to resignation and acceptance.

Patience reminds the distraught poet that God does not require human work or even gifts to maintain God’s kingly position; rather, those who serve God best are those who “bear his mild yoke.” This reference to a yoke is to a passage in Matthew 11, in which Jesus invites all those with burdens to take on his yoke because it is easy and his burden is light; in so doing the “heavy laden” will find spiritual rest and comfort. The yoke was used, literally, over the necks of oxen to keep them astride as they performed their work in the fields. Figuratively, God’s yoke is to keep humankind joined to God so that God shares much of the burden and humans do not have to carry it alone.

The reply that Patience makes is stated in the terms of the hierarchy of angels that Milton cites in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674)—that some are angels of contemplation rather than of action. Thus, “waiting on” God can be a means of service just as in the account in Luke 10:38-42, in which Mary and Martha invited Jesus into their home. Martha bustled about preparing refreshments but Mary just “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” When Martha objected to Mary’s inactivity, Jesus told Martha that Mary’s wishing to simply commune with God was “the good part.” Sonnet XIX not only is among Milton’s masterly poems in its structure and its rich use of word play but also delivers a powerful message and speaks with an authoritative voice.

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