Student Question

How can John Milton's sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent" be paraphrased?

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To paraphrase a text is to summarize or explain it but especially to do so by rephrasing it in one’s own words. Thus a paraphrase of John Milton’s sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent” might read as follows:

When I consider how my light is spent,

When I think about the fact that my light is extinguished [that is, that I am blind]

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

before I have lived half the time I expect to live in this dark and wide world

And that one Talent which is death to hide

and when I consider that the gifts that God gave me (probably referrring to Milton's literary talent, but also with a definite pun on the meaning of “talent” as a coin which God expects one to use wisely) may go unused and thus lead to a kind of spiritual death for me

Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent

because I am now incapable of using those gifts, even though in my soul I am now more determined or desiring

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

to serve God with my gifts, and offer him

My true account, lest he returning chide;

an accurate accounting of how I have used the gifts he gave me, so that he won’t criticize me;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

when I consider all this, I foolishly ask myself, “Does God expect me to perform in the daylight when I have been denied light?”  However, the psychological trait of patience, in order to stop me

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

from asking that question, quickly replies to me,  “God is in no need of

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

either a human being’s labor or of the gifts God gives to people; instead, the people who most successfully and willingly

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

accept the light burdens he places on humans are the people who are his best servants.  His position and dignity

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

are like those of a monarch.  Thousands [of angels] at his command move very quickly

And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

and hasten over the land and over the ocean without pausing:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

likewise, those who merely stand and wait (are passive and accepting of God's ways) also serve God."

The syntax (or sentence structure) of this poem makes its meaning a bit hard to follow at first, but long, "periodic" sentences full of dependent clauses are typical of Milton's style, not only in this poem but in his epic Paradise Lost. Essentially, the poem asks the question, "how can I serve God when I am blind?"  And it answers that question by saying, "God himself determines who and how people can best serve him. Have patience and trust God."

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