Sunday, January 18, 2009

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

"Milton Dictates Paradise Lost to His Daughters," Eugène Delacroix (ca. 1826)

Despite the articles on John Milton that appeared throughout the year, in the Guardian and the New Yorker, I managed to miss his 400th birthday on the 9th of the past December. In my English classes at school and university, I never managed to finish Paradise Lost, though phrases of it do engrave themselves upon one's memory, but did also read (and, for the sake of the English Literature exam, memorize) his sonnet, "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." Its language is enigmatic, and it was years later, looking at it afresh, that I understood it better.

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-labor, 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."


This sonnet is, of course, Milton's reflection on the loss of his eyesight, or, in his words, light.

The "talent which is death to hide" is a reference to a Biblical passage, Matthew 25: 14-30. The passage tells the allegorical tale of three servants who receive money (a "talent" is a very valuable coin, in this context) from their master; two of the servants invest the coins and make a profit, whereas the third buries his coin. When the master comes back he happily receives the old and new coins from his servants, but when the third servant presents the single coin, he vituperates and then banishes the unlucky man from his service. Anyway, it isn't the most sympathetic or logical story, but the intended point of it is that God gives us gifts and wants us to do something with them. In Milton's case, the metaphorical God-given talent to which he refers is, most likely, his literary skill.

Since Milton cannot read or write when he is blind (though, of course, he later compensates for this incapacity by employing his daughters as scribes and readers, as is depicted in the painting at the top of this post), he despairs of being able to continue with his self-appointed task, which is, if the opening lines of Paradise Lost are a fair indication, to "assert the Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man." But then the thought occurs to him that God is so mighty as to be wholly independent of the actions of the individual; his work can be carried out by many divers emissaries.

To give my two cents, I don't particularly like Milton's world view. In my conception God (if he exists) created the world not as an exercise of his will, but because he wanted to have beings around whom he would make happy. Of course we are not always happy, but we grow, and even unhappy experience has a worth above superficial gaiety, if it ennobles and strengthens us. So we serve God by being happy and becoming better human beings, and by helping others to do the same, not by preaching about Christ or demanding punctilious observance of rituals. Since God is omnipotent anyway, there isn't much of a point to asserting his power the whole time.

At any rate, I do very much like the language of the poem, though considering the poet's future Roundhead sympathies his use of the adjective "kingly" is a little amusing. Especially the line "They also serve who only stand and wait" has often come to mind reassuringly in this indeterminate stage of my life.

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