[On His Blindness] Sonnet 16
[On His Blindness] Sonnet 16
John Milton 1673
“Sonnet 16” was printed in Poems (1673), but was most likely written at some earlier time, probably during a period in the early 1650s (his blindness became complete in 1652). Milton struggles in this sonnet with frustration at becoming blind and with his own sense of how important it is to use one’s talents well in God’s service. The sonnet records how he comes to understand a higher notion of service: real service is doing the will of God even if it means he must “stand and wait.” Notice as well the use of quiet puns or words that draw on double meanings. The words with double meanings are “spent” (in line 1), “talent” (secondary meaning, coin, line 3), “useless” (secondary meaning, without usury or interest on a debt, line 4), “account” (line 6), and “exact” (line 7). The secondary meanings run in a coherent line of images: all are images of monetary exchange. Milton is a poet who is highly sensitive to the multiple senses available in language and to clusters of imagery of this sort. Another thing to understand about Milton’s sonnets is their topical range. Not a writer of love sonnets in English (although the sonnets he wrote in Italian are love sonnets), Milton writes political sonnets, occasional sonnets, elegiac sonnets, and sonnets of personal meditation, like this one.
Milton was born in Cheapside, London, in 1608, the son of John Milton, Sr., a prosperous scrivener, notary, and composer, and Sara Jeffrey Milton. Because of the family’s financial standing, Milton received an excellent education in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and Italian. Music and literature were particular favorites with the boy, and Milton began composing his own poetry at a young age. From 1618 to 1620 he was privately tutored at the family home. He then attended St. Paul’s School before moving on to Christ’s College, Cambridge, at the age of sixteen. His handsome face, delicate appearance, and lofty but unpretentious bearing earned him the nickname “The Lady of Christ’s.” At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. Upon leaving the university in 1632 with a master’s degree, Milton retired to Hammersmith for three years and later to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he devoted himself to intense study and writing. In May of 1638 Milton embarked on an Italian journey which was to last nearly fifteen months. The experience, which he described in Pro populo anglicano defensio secunda (Second Defence of the People of England, 1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples, including Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, who had been an intimate of the epic poet Torquato Tasso. Scholars view the Italian tour as seminal in Milton’s literary development; a new self-confidence emerged in the letters he wrote during his travels, and it was in Italy that Milton first proposed to write a great epic.
With the coming of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, Milton’s life changed completely as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. Abruptly he left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlet s during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. Having, as he related, embarked from a sense of duty upon “a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes,” he declared his Puritan allegiance in tracts in which he argued the need to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the apostolic church. In 1642 he married his first wife, Mary Powell, who left him shortly after the wedding (but returned to him three years later; paradoxically, though Milton was to marry two more times, he was never divorced). With the execution of Charles I in 1649, Milton entered the political fray with The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, an assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant. This view constituted a complete about-face for Milton, who had written as a good monarchist in his early works. Henceforth
Milton was permanently on the political left. He accepted an invitation to become Cromwell’s Latin secretary for foreign affairs and issued a number of tracts on church and state issues. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 left Milton disillusioned and hastened his departure from public life; as a former member of the Commonwealth, he lived for a time in peril of his life, but for reasons not entirely clear he was spared harsh punishment.
The remaining fourteen years of Milton’s life were spent in relatively peaceful retirement in and around London. Completely blind since 1652, he increasingly devoted his time to poetry. Amanuenses, assisted sometimes by Milton’s two nephews and his daughter Deborah, were employed to take dictation, correct copy, and read aloud, and Milton made rapid progress on projects he had put off many years before. During the writing of Paradise Lost, Milton spent mornings dictating passages he had composed in his head at night. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, a verse tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. He died in November, 1674, apparently of complications arising from gout. His funeral, wrote John Toland in 1698, was attended by “All his learned and great Friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar.”
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
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
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The poet considers how his “light” is used up or wasted or put forth in the world; in a poem on blindness, “light” can most easily be interpreted as his ability to see. But for this deeply religious poet it may also mean an inner light or spiritual capacity.
The poet assumes that his life is not yet half over. The phrase “in this dark world and wide” is typical of one of the ways Milton handles adjectives, putting one in front of the noun and one behind it.
This line may refer to the Biblical parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which speaks of a bad servant who neglects his master’s talent (a talent was a kind of coin) instead of using it; he is “cast into outer darkness.” It can also mean a literal talent, in other words Milton’s talent as a writer.
“Lodged with me useless” means that his talent as a poet is useless now that he is losing his sight. “Though my soul more bent/ to serve therewith my Maker” can be roughly paraphrased, “although my soul is even more inclined to serve God with that talent.” This is especially frustrating to want to serve God with his writing but to feel his talent will be wasted as he becomes blind. He wishes ultimately to “present his true account,” or give a good account of himself and his service to God.
Line 5 expresses the speaker’s desire to serve God through his poetry, to use his talents for the glory of God.
This line may refer to the second coming of Christ or to the judgement. “Lest he returning chide” can be paraphrased “so that he won’t chide or rebuke me when he returns.”
Milton grumblingly asks here if God just wants day-work, or smaller, lesser tasks, since Milton’s blindness denies him his “light” and thus the use of his talents. Note that Milton allows his grumbling tone to show first, and then qualifies his own attitude as foolish.
Patience is not capitalized, but has often been thought of as a personification here rather than as another aspect of Milton’s inner self. Either way, in the inner dialogue, patience speaks in the remaining six lines, quite effectively having the last word.
Patience speaks, to prevent that “murmur,” Milton’s questioning of God’s will in line 7.
Patience’s reply explains one aspect of the nature of God and affirms a kind of service to God that is different from the service advocated in the parable of the talents. First of all God does not need man’s work or God-given talents. The nature of service to God is explained next.
“Who best / bear his mild yoke” means the people who are most obedient to God’s will (which is mild, not difficult). These people are the ones who serve God best. The image of the yoke is also Biblical; a yoke was a kind of harness put on oxen but in Matthew 11:29-30 it is an image for God’s will.
“His state is kingly” explains God’s greatness; patience goes on to elaborate in the next lines on that greatness.
At God’s bidding or will, thousands of people and by implication angelic messengers “speed and post” all over the world all the time. This line implies a sort of constant worldwide motion of service to God’s commands; that allows the last line to imply by contrast a great restfulness and peace. There is more than one way to serve God, and patience is telling the poet that even his waiting or the apparent inaction caused by his blindness can be a kind of service if it meets the criterion of lines 10-11, to bear the yoke well.
This famous line is often quoted.
In “Sonnet 16” Milton meditates on the devastating effect blindness has had on his life and work. He equates his lost vision with “light spent,” and laments not the handicap in and of itself, but the limitations it imposes on his work as a poet. His poetic ability is so important to him that he calls it “that one talent,” suggesting it is the only talent that matters. It is “Lodged with me useless”—in other words, its expression has been rendered impossible by his blindness. His limitation is particularly distressing since Milton desires more than ever to write poetry but seems to see no way to continue. Blindness imposed a double limitation on Milton’s poetic activity. In the broadest sense, it made poetry an impossible activity, for there was no way for a blind man to put words to paper. In addition, Milton’s conception of epic poetry presupposed a high level of education. The loss of his vision meant he could no longer read and, by extension, could no longer learn.
The image of “light” is important to the poem. On the most superficial level it refers to physical light, which the poet can no longer experience. It calls to mind a story in the Gospel of John (John IX, 1-7) to which Milton referred in other texts. In the story, Jesus miraculously cures a beggar’s blindness. The image of light resonates on many different levels in the Bible story, and most are present in Sonnet 16 as well. For instance, when Jesus tells his disciples “I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day; the night cometh
- The six-cassette English Literature in the Seventeenth Century, published by G. K. Hall Audio Books in 1986, contains readings of works by Milton, as well as Samuel Pepys, John Donne, John Bunyan, and John Dryden.
- The Milton-L Home Page, web-site. www.urich.edu/~creamer/milton.html
- Hill, John Spencer, John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet, on-line book. www.uottowa.ca/~phoenix/mi/ton.htm
when no man can work,” daylight is a metaphor for man’s life. Like each day, our lives are limited and once night comes that day is gone forever. As he writes, Milton is still alive, but he believes the darkness his blindness has brought means the end of his creative life. When he writes of “talent which is death to hide,” he suggests further that his blindness will prevent him from achieving another, longer life: the immortality that fame brings a poet who has written a masterpiece.
On yet another level, light signifies the inner light, the spiritual light that shines in the poet. In the gospel story, Christ called himself “the light of the world,” that he was bringing God’s word to man. Milton believed that poets were also bringers of light; their works brought a special kind of enlightenment to humanity. But his blindness has snuffed out his poetic light.
Milton refers to another gospel passage in this sonnet, the parable of the talents from the gospel of Matthew. In that story a master gives each of his three servants a sum of money, that is, some “talents,” which they are to keep for him while he undertakes a journey. When he returns, he asks each servant for the money. The first two have used the money wisely and return to the master twice the sum they were entrusted with. The third servant, however, only buried his talent. The master is angry
Topics for Further Study
- How could a person “serve” by merely waiting? What situations can you think of in which someone could perform a great service by “waiting?”
- What other physical handicap could be as damaging to a career as blindness? Describe it and its consequences without using the name of the handicap.
- Write a poem in reply to Milton that might persuade him that his talent is not useless.
with the servant, takes back the money, and casts him “in the outer darkness.” The moral of the story, of which Milton is well aware, is that each are given gifts by God, and that for all there will be a day of reckoning when all will have to “present [one’s] true account.” In his poem, Milton plays upon the two meanings of “talent”: a form of money in the Bible story and a God-given ability in the everyday sense. He fears that, because of his blindness, he will never be able to put his talent to the use God intends.
For fourteen years, Milton “hid his talent in the earth,” in the words of the gospel. The “wicked and slothful servant” was cast into darkness. One sense, therefore, in which “it is death to hide” one’s talent, is that one will be punished: cast out of the light, out of God’s presence. Milton, however, has not yet been called to make his “true account.” His soul burns as much as ever to put it to use, but the darkness into which he has already been cast prevents Milton from doing his duty to God and making full use of his talent. Can God expect him do his work without his eyesight?, he is finally tempted to ask. Can God truly expect him to fulfill a duty that God himself has apparently made impossible?
Patience, the virtue, counsels against putting that foolish question put to the Almighty. Man’s duty to God is not to give Him anything. God has no need of humans’ work; everything they have are “his own gifts” anyway, in Milton’s eyes. In the face of a catastrophe like blindness the only course of action open to him—and the rest of mankind, as the last six lines suggest—is humble resignation to God’s will. “Who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” hearkens back to the passage in John’s gospel mentioned earlier. Jesus tells his disciples that the blind man did not become blind because he had sinned, “but that the work of God should be made manifest in him.” Like Job, Milton accepts his lot in life as part of a greater plan. Some are meant for action, to “speed / And post o’er the land and ocean without rest.” But others “who only stand and wait”—whether as a servant awaiting his master’s bidding or a laborer waiting to be hired—do God’s will as well.
In “Sonnet 16” sonnet Milton takes advantage of the Italian sonnet form, in which an octave, or first eight lines, poses a problem, and the sestet, or last six lines, offers an answer or resolution. The dividing point between problem and solution is at line 9, usually called the “turn” or volta. In this sonnet Milton uses the turn cleverly to emphasize his own impatience: the turn comes a half line early, and it is his own patience he personifies as speaking out to “prevent” his own impatience. The quatrains use enclosed rhyme, sometimes notated as abba abba; here the sestet’s rhyme scheme is cde cde, one of the many accepted rhyme schemes of an Italian sestet. Milton was known for his metrical skill, and this poem’s regular iambic pentameter is typically competent, although it does not contain the amazing rhythmic and musical effects for which he is well known. It is interesting instead for its many enjambments, the running over of one line into another, which might be said to make the lines hurry along. All the impatient enjambments make the last line stand out by contrast; in some sense they help the last line perform what its theme is, to stand still and wait.
At the end of the 1630s, England was in turmoil. Radical Puritan sects were demanding a complete reform of the Church of England. There was growing tension between the House of Commons, one of the branches of England’s parliament, and King Charles I over the financing of his wars. Adding to
Compare & Contrast
- 17th Century: The English government employed censors who reviewed all books, journals, and pamphlets before they were published. Censors were concerned with preventing the expression of heretical beliefs, antireligious sentiments, or attacks on highly placed individuals, like the king. John Milton’s essay Areopagitica was an early plea for complete freedom of the press.
Today: Because of the constitutional right to free speech, censorship initiatives in the United States almost always often come from private interest groups. The focus of such attempts to control speech is rarely political. It is sometimes religious, as in the effort to prevent the teaching of scientific theories of evolution in public schools. It is sometimes ethnic or sexual, as seen in efforts to prevent expression that is seen to be sexist, racist, or somehow derogatory to one group of citizens. Most often, it is directed at material with explicit sexual content that opponents believe could be detrimental to the morals of children or adults, or which could lead to antisocial behavior such as sex crimes.
- 17th Century: Marriage was considered a sacramental institution by the Roman Catholic Church as well as the churches in England. Despite Henry VIII’s divorces one hundred years earlier, divorces were very rarely granted in Milton’s time, and then only on grounds of adultery or impotence. His advocacy of it in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was considered a nearly heretical suggestion.
Today: Divorce is easier to obtain than at practically any time in western history. According to the 1997 Statistical Abstract, more than one million Americans divorce every year. More than half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce.
- 17th Century: Europe was wracked by religious intolerance and members of groups whose beliefs differed from official religions were often persecuted for their beliefs. The Protestant Huguenots were forced to leave Catholic France, Protestant sects like the Puritans and Quakers, as well as Roman Catholics, were driven underground or forced to leave England. In Italy the Waldensian (Vaudois) sect was driven into the Alps and eventually murdered.
Today: Religious persecution is often as bloody today as it was three hundred years ago. Christian Serbs have waged a war of extermination against Bosnian Muslims for most of the 1990s. The conflict between Hindus and Sikhs in India erupts regularly into violence. And although a settlement has been sought for nearly twenty years, the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis usually take the form of violent demonstrations, police beatings, and military action.
the conflict was that the House of Commons was largely Puritan while Charles, as England’s King, was head of the Church of England. Charles’s attempt to arrest five leaders of Commons in 1642 was the spark that set off the civil war. After years of indecisive battles, Oliver Cromwell’s brilliant military leadership—combined with Parliament’s control of most of England’s financial resources—finally prevailed. In 1649, Charles I was beheaded. His son, Charles II, led a Scottish army in an attempt to win back the throne, but was routed by Cromwell and the English. After nine long years, the civil wars were ended and England was a proclaimed a Commonwealth.
Milton cut short a trip to the continent in 1639 when he heard of the religious controversies in England. Back at home, he became an active agitator in the movement that eventually brought down Charles I. He wrote numerous pamphlets and other works on behalf of the Puritan revolutionaries and later for Cromwell’s Commonwealth. He did not hesitate to attack the Church of England (in Of Reformation, for example), Parliament (in Areopagitica), or the King himself (in Eikonoklastes) to enunciate principles in which he believed. He was a fierce believer in individual freedoms. Some of his most famous pieces defended freedom of press and of religious conscience. His arguments advocating divorce created a minor controversy in the midst of the rush to civil war.
From his time as a student on, Milton’s great ambition was to write a magnificent epic poem for England. While in Europe in 1638, he began collecting possible subjects, both religious and secular, for this poem. But when he entered the political fray, he deliberately postponed his plan for poetry. In addition to his polemical writing, he was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues in 1649, a government post that took up much of his time. Between Lycidas in November 1637 and the full onset of his blindness in 1652, Milton had not written a single major poem, and he had done next to no work on the epic. Whenever “Sonnet 16” was written, Milton obviously regretted the time he had spent not making poetry. The thought that his blindness could form an insurmountable obstacle to the realization of his life’s work was linked to an acute awareness of the time he had lost, not to say wasted.
Milton’s blindness was not an unexpected bolt from the blue. His mother had bad vision, and his own eyesight faded slowly over nearly a decade. Trouble seemed to start in 1644, when he noticed problems reading. He once described his early symptoms as “a sort of rainbow” that obscured whatever he was looking at. That was followed by a mist in his left eye which gradually blotted out everything on that side. Objects nearby looked smaller than they should have. When he rested and closed his eyes, he experienced an explosion of colors. This description has suggested to medical specialists that he had a cyst on his pituitary gland. In 1650 his left eye became completely blind. Milton’s continuous writing, reading, and correction of proofs probably hastened his complete loss of vision. For the last twenty-two years of his life he had to dictate his writings to a secretary. A more difficult adjustment for the studious Milton may have been that he needed someone to read to him.
Milton became completely blind at the age of forty-three in 1652 and “Sonnet 16” is intimately connected with the poet’s loss of sight. But scholars disagree whether Milton composed the piece upon the onset of total blindness or at another date (the poem was not actually printed until the collection Poems in 1673). Some critics, for example, insist that the sonnets were written in chronological order. If so, “Sonnet 16” would have been written sometime after 1655. In that year inhabitants of the Italian area of Piedmont brutally massacred members of the Waldensians (also known as the-Vaudois), a group of religious dissenters who had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Milton’s next sonnet is from that year and commemorates “the late massacre at Piedmont.”
Others believe the despair evident in the poem could only have been so deeply felt soon after the full onset of his blindness. By 1654, when the author completed his Second Defence of the English People, he had regained full confidence in his ability to work despite his disability. After that work was completed, these critics contend, his blindness took on a completely different cast in his own mind: what had earlier seemed a handicap became proof that, like prophets of old, he had been marked by God for some extraordinary work. If he did postpone publishing the sonnet until later, it might have been to conceal his sightlessness from his political enemies, who would have used it as a sign of God’s wrath. This accusation that was often made anyway, especially after the restoration of the Charles II to the throne of England in 1660.
Still others speculate that the poem could have been written long before the author’s complete loss of vision. Milton did not seem handicapped by his blindness, even immediately after it became total. The Council of State retained him as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, a position which required him to compose and translate important diplomatic correspondence. They apparently did not view his blindness as a liability. Furthermore, Milton became progressively blind over a number of years and would have had an opportunity to adjust to it. These critics point to the line “Ere half my days in this dark world and wide” and note that Milton would have been long past the midpoint of his life in the 1650s. In the seventeenth century, a normal lifespan was considered “Threescore years and ten” (seventy years), a number mentioned in the Psalms. Milton turned thirty-six in 1644. He first noticed problems with his sight at that time, problems that often prevented him from reading. Perhaps then Milton wrote “Sonnet 16”—which was not titled “On His Blindness” until long after his death—in anticipation of his eventual blindness.
Milton is known as one of the very greatest and most influential English poets, ranking with Chaucer and Shakespeare. He wrote both poetry and prose, and in poetry wrote pastoral, elegy, epic, drama, sonnet, and other kinds. His most famous and influential work is the epic Paradise Lost, which has been at the center of English literary criticism since Milton’s day. His sonnets have received less critical attention. Lord Macaulay, unusual in valuing the sonnets highly, wrote in Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays that “traces … of the peculiar character of Milton may be found in all his works; but it is most strongly displayed in the Sonnets. Those remarkable poems have been undervalued …” Macaulay links the sonnets firmly to Milton’s life and character, a view which would not be a distortion of this particular sonnet.
“Sonnet 16” in particular, however, has received a fair amount of critical discussion, much of it disputing the date of composition. A. S. P. Woodhouse and Douglas Bush, in A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton summarize several dozen essays on this poem as follows: “[I]t is evident that all interpretations recognize that the sonnet commences from a mood of depression, frustration, even impatience (since Patience has to intervene), and that the counsel of Patience is submission: the remaining lines reinforce this counsel or add an entirely new conception … here, as in ‘Sonnet 7 [On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three],’ the problem posed is not so much resolved as lifted to a plane where self-regarding thoughts become irrelevant.”
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County, as well as the faculty advisor and cofounder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College. In the following essay, Kelly provides biographical information about Milton to help modern readers approach Milton’s poem from three centuries ago.
Is “Sonnet 16” a good thing to read?
There is no question that, when literary figures are ranked in order of their all-time importance, John Milton’s name always appears close to the top of the list of English poets. The question often raised by modern students is whether the standards that are used to put him in such a high ranking are relevant to today’s fast-paced world. Sure, he can
What Do I Read Next?
- Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of my Life (1903) is a classic account of how an individual overcame extreme physical handicaps—blindness and deafness—to lead an inspiring, meaningful life.
- Christy Brown’s My Left Foot (1954; made into a film in 1989) is the autobiography of a man severely crippled by cerebral palsy who manages with the use of only his left foot to become a celebrated writer and artist.
- John Milton treats blindness further in his epic poem, Samson Agonistes (1671). The work describes the famous hero of the Israelites who is captured by the enemies of his people, imprisoned, and blinded.
- Milton’s essay Areopagitica (1644) is his most famous prose piece. It is a passionate defense of free speech that has influenced civil libertarians up to this day.
gracefully pull a 180-degree turn in the direction of his thought when going from the octave to the sestet of an Italian sonnet, but what does that matter in a world where a surprise gunshot in a film such as Pulp Fiction can alter the direction of the story in an instant, or where the quick-cutting of music videos has trained our brains to expect a new viewpoint every 3.7 seconds? Students are right to wonder whether Milton’s reputation is based upon his understanding of the world around us, or if he is assigned reading because English professors had to suffer through understanding what he meant when they were students, and they now want to sadistically pass their suffering along. Milton is not easy to read and understand: three centuries have added the problem of outdated word usage to the twists that he intentionally gave the language to keep his readers on their toes, and his subject matter is purposely tangled, being chosen to show how reality contradicts itself. It only makes sense that we would study difficult things, since obvious
“As opposed to the universal acclaim that Milton receives as a poet, his sonnets have garnered uneven support, running from critics who say they were great or just good to those who consider them really pretty terrible.”
things, by definition, do not need to be studied in order to be appreciated. With so much to study in the modern world, a person taking classes at a high school or college—who, based on averages, will be neither blind nor deeply religious—will want to know that the effort they are putting toward understanding a poem such as “On His Blindness” will end up being worth the investment.
The first way to approach such a question is to consider the reputation that the poet brings with him, looking for signs that Milton’s popularity in the field of literature is more of a matter of reputation than of relevance. After Shakespeare, there is probably no English poet who has stronger acceptance as a master of his art. It is no shame to Milton that he can only, in the best evaluations, come in second place. In fact, it is practically inevitable: Shakespeare is not really judged by literary critics so much as he is set aside and used as the standard for measuring the effectiveness of other poets; no one could ever unseat him from the number one position. Even being considered among the top few poets is an astounding feat for Milton, considering the millions of poets who have written since his death in 1674. Skeptics may see this as a plot of the literary establishment to carry on the status quo, as if generations of thinkers would fail to produce any values other than what they were taught in school. The simple law of averages tells us that if Milton’s thinking were narrow or his use of words was just showy and without substance, someone would have made an argument against him so strong that lazy-minded traditionalists would find it easier to drop him from the textbooks than defend him.
Milton’s poetic reputation is based on the strength of his longer works, the epics Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and the poetic drama Samson Agonistes. If it were not for theses works, we probably would not study “Sonnet 16” today, since there certainly have been better English-language sonnet poets to capture our attention. As opposed to the universal acclaim that Milton receives as a poet, his sonnets have garnered uneven support, running from critics who say they were great or just good to those who consider them really pretty terrible. Two hundred ears ago, Samuel Johnson, the famed literary wit whose biography has provided the world with hundreds of well-known, erudite one-liners, explained to another writer how Milton could write so well in the larger forms and produce such poor shorter poems: “Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but he could not carve heads on cherry-stones.” Even a skeptic can recognize the skill and concentration that went into creating “Sonnet 16,” which is considered one of Milton’s best sonnets. At the same time, however, we are allowed to question whether this poem is studied today precisely because of the fast pace of modern life. If students are being given this sonnet to make up for reading works by Milton that truly deserve attention, then its place in literature texts is more of a Lifetime Achievement Award for the poet than an honor that the poem itself has earned.
In some respects, Milton’s life was indeed the sort that we think a poet ought to have, although it could be argued that, because his talent has secured his place in the textbooks, we have only kept the details of his life that befit a poetic legend. One seldom reads about his upper-class childhood and superb education without seeing a reference to the fact that at age 16, at Christ’s College, Cambridge, his nickname was “The Lady of Christ’s.” In other walks of life, a detail like this might be discreetly left out by biographers, but as a poet it is presented as testimony to Milton’s sensitivity and gentle manner. The other personal detail that biographers never leave out is his trip to Italy from 1638 to 1639, which is significant because that was when he met important thinkers and literary figures and became an international literary figure in his own right: good for Milton, but even better for his readers, because such recognition is often what is needed to give a writer confidence to explore his own thoughts and fears more deeply. He was politically active on the side of the parliamentarians against King Charles I in the Civil War of 1642 to 1648, which meant that he supported the power of elected representatives, rather than allowing the king to keep the absolute power that he traditionally had. After Charles I was executed in 1649, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Languages. In 1660, when the monarchy was restored under Charles II, he was arrested, but friends managed to get him released. He was a complicated man who embraced Christianity yet fought with almost all organized Christian religions; who sometimes relished public attention but who also hated public criticism so much that he often quarreled in print with his critics, as in his “Defense of Himself” published in 1655 and his “Second Defense” incongruously published the year before.
And, of course, he was blind.
All of the details about Milton’s life made him an interesting historical figure as someone centrally positioned in events in England in the seventeenth century, but they are not interesting enough to prop up a literary reputation. Even the blindness that complicated his life as a writer does not necessarily make him more interesting than, say, a blind butcher. As he said in Second Defence, “To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable.” Television constantly bombards our culture with uplifting stories of courageous individuals who manage to overcome their hardships: the extent to which these stories are successful depends, not on the hardships being overcome, but on what the struggle means to the person struggling. Milton was a voracious reader who spent whole years studying various disciplines that he previously had known nothing about, learning as much about music, geography, history and several languages as professionals in those fields. Losing his ability to read and write cut deeply—to the core of his personality. In his later years he had people to read and write for him, but that was as poor a substitute as having someone taste his food for him would have been. We only need to notice the importance that he put on light after his sight was gone to see what it meant to him. In Samson Agonistes, for example, he has Samson declare, “Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct”; the Invocation to Book III of Paradise Lost consists of a whole section in praise of light, including the phrase “God is Light,” which is a strangely self-excluding thing for a blind Christian to say. Rather than gathering up his determination to “overcome” blindness or deciding to simply accept the fate dealt to him. Milton wrote about true, complex feelings brought on by affliction. In this poem, which historians guess was written soon after he lost his sight, Milton shows the nerve to present himself as angry, frustrated, and vulnerable, and he has the verbal grace to hold these hot emotions suspended within fourteen lines.
There is nothing simple about this poem or this poet, although people will often declare that they don’t see the big deal if they are not willing to take the time to study. Some day in the future, when blindness is overcome by implants and neurosurgery, this poem will still be important to readers because it will show them how to deal with deep disappointment and how to relate to their God. Time has put a little dust on the language that Milton used, and most readers have a hard time understanding his primary meaning—much less the submeanings that he hints at—without the aid of a dictionary and poetry guide. Nonetheless, the strength of the poem makes the trip from our world to Milton’s worth it.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Smart explores the influence of the Italian sonnet upon the poetry of Milton.
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Source: Introduction to The Sonnets of John Milton, Clarendon Press, 1966, pp. 1-39.
Macaulay, Lord, “Milton,” in Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. I, Sheldon and Company, 1860, pp. 202-66.
Woodhouse, A. S. P. and Douglas Bush, in A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, Columbia University Press, 1970.
Bush, Douglas, John Milton, New York: Macmillan, 1964. A readable biography that focuses on Milton’s writings.
Essay analyzes the references to the gospels in “Sonnet 16.”
Honigmann, E. A. J., Milton’s Sonnets, New York: St Martin’s Press. 1966.
Discusses the controversy over the date of composition of “On His Blindness” and offers evidence for various conclusions.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope, John Milton: A Reader’s Guide to His Poetry, New York: Octagon Books. 1971.
Discusses the religious components of “On His Blindness,” including the parable of the talents and resignation to God’s will.
Wilson, A. N., The Life of John Milton, New York: Oxford University Press. 1983.
A biography that connects the sonnet to Milton’s decision to postpone his work as a poet to write his political tracts in service of the English Revolution.
Wolfe, Don M, Milton and His England, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
A book that describes Milton’s life in the context of the momentous times in which he lived.