"On His Blindness" is a Petrarchan
sonnet, a lyric poem with fourteen lines. This type of sonnet, popularized
by the Italian priest Petrarch (1304-1374), has a
rhyme scheme of ABBA, ABBA, CDE, and CDE. John Milton wrote the poem in
1655. For more information about sonnets, see Origin
of the Sonnet Form, below.
God judges humans on whether
they labor for Him to the best of their ability. For example, if one carpenter
can make only two chairs a day and another carpenter can make five, they
both serve God equally well if the first carpenter makes his two chairs
and the second makes his five. If one carpenter becomes severely disabled
and cannot make even a single chair, he remains worthy in the sight of
God. For, as Milton says in the last line of the poem, "they also serve
who only stand and wait."
3-6: Key to the Meaning
Lines 3 to 6 of the poem
allude to the "Parable of the Talents" in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew,
verses 14 to 30. In this famous parable,
an employer who is going away for a time gives his three servants money
in proportion to their ability to increase its value. He distributes the
money in talents, a unit of weight used in ancient times to establish the
value of gold, silver, or any other medium used as money. Thus, a Roman
might pay ten talents of gold for military supplies or seven talents of
silver for a quantity of food. In the "Parable of the Talents," the employer
gives the first servant five talents of silver, the second servant two
talents, and the third servant one talent. After the employer returns from
the trip and asks for an accounting, the first servant reports that he
doubled his talents to ten and the second that he doubled his to four.
Both men receive promotions. The third servant then reports that he still
has only one talent, for he did nothing to increase its value. Instead,
he buried it. The employer denounces him for his laziness, gives his talent
to the man with ten, and casts him outside into the darkness.
All the lines in the poem
are in iambic pentameter.
In this metric pattern, a line has five pairs of unstressed and stressed
syllables, for a total of ten syllables. The first two lines of the poem
illustrate this pattern:
con SID| er
my LIFE| is SPENT
my DAYS| in
John Milton's eyesight began
to fail in 1644. By 1652, he was totally blind. Oddly, he wrote his greatest
works, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, after he became
blind. Many scholars rank Milton as second only to Shakespeare in poetic
His Blindness By John Milton
When I consider how my
light is spent1 Ere half my days2
in this dark world and wide
And that one talent3
which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless,4
though my soul more bent
To serve therewith5
my Maker, and present
My true account,6
lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact7
day labor, light denied?"
ask. But Patience,9
That murmur, soon replies,.
"God doth not need Either man's work or
his own gifts.10
Bear his mild yoke,11
they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at
his bidding speed,. And post12
o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only
stand and wait.13
is spent: This clause presents a double meaning: (a) how I spend my
days, (b) how it is that my sight is used up.
half my days: Before half my life is over. Milton was completely blind
by 1652, the year he turned 44.
See Line 3: Key to the Meaning.
By that means, by that talent; with it
Record of accomplishment; worth
Milton personifies patience, capitalizing it and having it speak.
. . . gifts: God is sufficient unto Himself. He requires nothing outside
of Himself to exist and be happy.
11. yoke: Burden,
12. post: Travel.
of Figures of Speech
in this dark
and wide (line 2)
my soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker (lines 3-4). The author
compares his soul to his mind.
Patience, to prevent / That murmur, soon replies . . . (lines
also serve who only stand and wait.
of the Sonnet Form
sonnet form originated in Sicily in the thirteenth Century with Giacomo
da Lentino (1188-1240), a lawyer. The poetic traditions of the Provençal
region of France apparently influenced him, but he wrote his poems in the
Sicilian dialect of Italian. Some authorities credit another Italian, Guittone
d'Arezzo (1230-1294), with originating the sonnet. The English word "sonnet"
comes from the Italian word "sonetto," meaning "little song." Some early
sonnets were set to music, with accompaniment provided by a lute.
Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest, popularized
the sonnet form. Other popular Italian sonneteers were Dante
Alighieri (1265-1321), Italy's most famous and most accomplished writer,
and Guido Cavalcante (1255-1300).
sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza
(sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops
it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA;
(2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE (or CDC, CDC; or CDE, DCE). Sonnets
written in this format by later poets came to be known as Petrarchan sonnets.
sonnet form was introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547). They translated Italian sonnets
into English and wrote sonnets of their own. Surrey introduced blank
verse into the English language in his translation of the Aeneid
of Vergil. Wyatt and Surrey sometimes replaced Petrarch's scheme of an
eight-line stanza and a six-line stanza with three four-line stanzas and
a two-line conclusion known as a couplet. Shakespeare adopted the latter
scheme in his sonnets, and this form came to be known as the Shakespearean
Shakespeare, well known English sonneteers in the late 1500's included
Sir Philip Sydney, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton.
Italy, England, and elsewhere between the thirteenth and early sixteenth
Centuries, the most common theme of sonnets was love. Sonnets in later
times also focused on religion, politics, and other concerns of the reading
Questions and Essay Topics
Write an essay that provides examples of people who exemplify the last
line of the poem.
Research the life of John Milton. Then write an essay describing the methods
he used to compose his poetry when he was blind.
Another famous man, Ludwig van Beethoven, composed great symphonies after
he became deaf. Pete Gray, a baseball player, earned the right to play
in the major leagues even though he had only one arm. Julius Caesar, an
epileptic, became ruler of Rome. Do you believe that the human psyche has
a way of compensating for a physical disability?