The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

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.

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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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702

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 conviction, and he would have been aware that darkness was a cliché in much religious writing for sinfulness and ignorance.

One of the most obvious plays on words is the use of “talent.” When the poet makes a reference to “that one talent which is death to hide,” simultaneously one associates the word both with Milton’s great skill as a writer of prose and poetry and with the biblical passage commonly known as the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 to which the poem clearly refers. The “talent” was a type of coin used in biblical times.

In line 4, the word “useless,” familiarly used to indicate that something is not serving a valuable purpose, also is related to “usury” and is associated with money not earning any interest. In the same line, the word “bent” carries the idea of being determined to do something but also has the etymological background of being bonded or bound, in this case to Milton’s feeling of divine-given vocation to writing. The words “light denied” in line 7, in addition to the obvious suggestion of blindness, can also refer to spiritual light or to inspiration for the poet. The phrase in lines 11 and 12, “his state/ Is kingly,” can be associated with greatness, power, and stateliness as well as with territory.

Following the example of Edmund Spenser, one of the greatest nondramatic poets of the Elizabethan era, Milton developed the characteristic of using archaic words, particularly in his earlier work. One such example in Sonnet XIX is “fondly,” which in medieval English meant “foolish” or “naïvely credulous.” Even by Milton’s time, the word was taking on its later meaning of “affectionately.”

Unlike various poets before and after him, Milton did not feel compelled to end an octave precisely at the end of a line, as with line 8 of this sonnet. Here, he practices enjambment, in which he carries over a sentence into line 9 and then introduces the contrast with the word “but” in the middle of the line.

Although he could write simple subject-verb-object clauses when such was required, Milton often preferred involved syntax. In Sonnet XIX, he uses subordination, inversion, and a delayed subject and verb. The complexity of the opening adverbial clause (“When I considerlest he returning chide”) contributes to a building of intensity to a climax at which the speaker, feeling either angry, despondent, or impatient, speaks the direct object in the form of the question (“Doth God exact . . .?”) before qualifying it with the main clause (“I fondly ask”).

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