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
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least 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’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.’
“On His Blindness” by John Milton.
In 1652, just a few days shy of his forty-fourth birthday, John Milton’s world went black. Struck with glaucoma, and lacking a cure, the great writer experienced the gradual loss of his vision — the onset of optic nerve pressure, the steady contraction of his field of view, the dimming of his sight, and the final eclipse of darkness that left him permanently blind. “That one talent,” Milton lamented, “lodg’d with me useless.”
“On His Blindness” is one of the most celebrated poems in English. The work, which was written — or rather dictated — by Milton in 1655, is a meditation on what God demands of men, blind or seeing. Milton begins with a simple premise: When I consider how my light is spent. In this, the poem is a work of epistemic philosophy, very logical in its force, for it posits a simple fact and then moves to deduce others from it.
But the brilliance of Milton is not merely a matter of his logic. “Spent” here also establishes an extended metaphor. Milton is overlaying the Biblical “Parable of the Talents” onto his own struggle to cope with the desire to work in the face of debilitating blindness. Thus “talent” in the third line is a double-entendre — it refers to the talent of sight as well as the talents, which are units of monetary measure, in the New Testament allegory. Those who have read Matthew 25 will know the significance of talents in the parable, for they are the treasures left by a master to his three servants as he leaves for an extended period. The master entrusts them with this bounty so that they may use their talents for good while he is gone. However, upon his return, the master finds that only the first two servants have turned their talents into a profit. The third servant merely hid his treasure, burying it in the ground.
Milton regards himself as that third servant. His talent — death’s to hide — has been spent.
The parable of the talents also provides the origin of what many Christians view as the salutary pronouncement which will be uttered upon their entrance to heaven. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” says the master to the first two men, “You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Matthew 25:23) Hence, the word “account” is also a double-entendre, which applies to both sides of the extended metaphor. The account given by each of the servants, which describes how he used his treasure, mirrors Milton’s “true account”: the justification he must offer for what he has done with his allotted talents and time on earth.
Yet from this legalistic view of a vengeful Maker, Milton asks, ‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’ The answer he finds is ultimately freeing. ‘God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts (the talents God bestows in us)’.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Milton died on this day, 338 years ago.