The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Milton’s Sonnet XIX, sometimes known as “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” opens with the narrator reflecting on the fact that he has become blind before half his life has been lived. He is profoundly distressed at the prospect of no longer being able to use his greatest talent, writing, and fears that God might be displeased and punish him for not using it—just as, in a biblical parable, God punished the servant who had not used the money entrusted to him but had hidden it instead. He asks himself whether God could possibly expect the same service from him, being impaired, that God expects from those without an overwhelming handicap.

As he is posing this question in his mind, Patience, personified, answers by reminding him that God does not have to depend on humanity’s work or its gifts; rather, those who serve God best are those who “Bear his mild yoke.” The narrator acknowledges God’s exalted position and the fact that multitudes of people all over the world stay busy night and day doing things that God bids them do; nevertheless, he concludes that those who “only stand and wait” can also serve God in a way that is worthy.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Sonnet XIX, Milton opts to replace the verbal luxuriance of the Elizabethan sonnet with classical precision and the Petrarchan, or Italian, form in crafting this tight poem. With fourteen rhymed lines of iambic pentameter, the sonnet is divided into two parts by rhyme scheme: The octave is rhymed abba abba, and the sestet is rhymed cde cde. The structure of Sonnet XIX is masterful. A basic structural principle is paragraph rather than sentence, and this sonnet is, in effect, a verse paragraph. Also in typical Italian form, the sonnet’s rhetorical structure follows its rhyme scheme. The octave presents a problem—how a man deprived of his sight can please God and obey God’s admonition to use his talents to the fullest—and the sestet offers a solution or a resolution: He can serve in other ways and still please God. Milton employs personification to provide for a response to the narrator’s anguished question. Patience interrupts to put an end to his foolish question at the volta, or the turn at the sestet.

Various critics have commented on Milton’s use of puns and have identified a number of them in this short poem. In the opening line, Milton uses the word “spent,” which evolved from the Indo-European form meaning “to spin,” through the Latin meaning of “weigh,” into Middle English “pensive,” and through Old French to the modern English “expend,” “ponder,” or “spend.” In the context of the rest of the poem, all these meanings are relevant. In the second line, Milton refers to his plight in “this dark world and wide.” Darkness in this sonnet immediately suggests his blindness; however, Milton was also a man with deep religious...

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