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John Milton's Sonnet 19 "When I Consider How my Light is Spent"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Milton


Milton's Sonnet 19 "When I consider how my light is spent"

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Reading of Milton's Sonnet 19


Musing on his blindness, 17th century poet John Milton (1608–1674) created a new sonnet form. In addition to the Petrarchan and Elizabethan, a new Miltonic sonnet came into being.

This great poet also unveiled an important religious tenet that quietly performing one's life tasks is just as vital to God-awareness as carting the body hither and yon in search of various activities.

Sri Yukteswar averred in Paramahansa Yogananda's in Autobiography of a Yogi, "What one does not trouble to find within will not be discovered by transporting the body hither and yon."

John Milton's "When I Consider How my Light is Spent," sonnet 19 in his sonnet series, offered his first contemplation on his blindness. The sonnet's rime scheme harkens back to the Petrarchan (Italian) form: ABBAABBACDECDE.

However, dissimilar from the Petrarchan or Italian form that creates and elaborates a problematic issue in the octave and then seeks to resolves that problem in its sestet, the newly minted Miltonic form just continues to address the issue created inside the first lines.

Any resolution to a problem, if one happens to occur, happens quite accidentally. The Miltonic speaker holds his discourse to a standard of consistency without attempting to create any full-throated shift.

First Quatrain: "When I consider how my light is spent"

Because of the manner in which Milton handles the systemic theme in this sonnet 19, readers and listeners will come to understand that the speaker is pursuing the problem in a way that may be considered compartmentalized, similar to the structural movement of the Elizabethan (Shakespearean or also called English) sonnet.

Because of Milton's chosen order for moving through the sonnet, it is necessary to discuss the sonnet in terms of the quatrain and couplet, just as one might offer commentary over the Elizabethan (Shakespearean, English) form.

Thus, as the speaker approaches his first quatrain, he demonstrates his worries and fears that his oncoming blindness may adversely affect his only talent, which is writing. He fears that his talent may suffer from his physical condition.

The speaker then engages a pun on the word "talent," as he alludes to the Biblical parable that appears in the Holy Scripture in Matthew 25: 14-30. In addition to scriptural allusion, this speaker's emphasis will put readers in mind of the persona created in the Shakespearean mold as the latter mused and then created a dramatic discourse regarding this own relationship to his writing talent.

Second Quatrain: "To serve therewith my Maker, and present"

The second quatrain finds the speaker dramatizing his difficult challenge as he queries: "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" The speaker desires an answer to that question, yet he is aware that it would sound rude and audacious.

The speaker then quickly recovers his inner silence and patience, two qualities that prevent his approaching his Creator in such a cheeky and blatant manner. As he gathers his emotions, he finds a new path for treading the dangerous one he now must travel.

Third Quatrain: "That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need"

Immediately the speaker brings back to his mind that fact that his Creator has no urgent need of anything the speaker might accomplish; God requires only "Patience" of his created beings—not the work of those beings and not the gifts any created being might imagine himself to own.

Many people in possession of "talent" work without ceasing as they "bear [their] mild yoke." The speaker thankfully realizes that those humble individuals, who remain steadily capable of moving to accept the will of their Creator are the ones who also remain in possession of the ability to "serve him best."

Couplet: "And post o'er land and ocean without rest"

The many workers and thinkers who continue to move about vigorously in challenging engagements and travels are laboring diligently everywhere for their Lord God Creator, but those who "only stand and wait" are equally vital to that Creator. Remaining in one place while toiling quietly, those individuals also competently serve their Creator.

As the speaker has given balm to his own conscience that had lamented his inability to fulfill of his life's duties, he has also formulated a necessary religious tenet that is both vital and universal.

Through his musing and coming to terms with the issue of his own blindness, the speaker has offered to the world a significant concept that all of humankind will at one point or another discover to be beneficial: both stillness and activity are necessary to the Creator and the creation. Those who remain still and in one place "also serve."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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