Monday, December 5, 2011
(Portrait in pastel of John Milton,
1608-1674, after an engraving by
William Faithorne, circa 1616-1691)
It is said that the works of the poet John Milton, along with the King James Bible and the writings of Shakespeare, transformed the English language.
Milton’s greatest work is Paradise Lost, published in 1667. This is the epic story, told in blank verse, of the rebellion against God launched by the archangel Lucifer and his cohort. Their defeat was total. Lucifer was banished to the depths of Hell where, as Satan, he plotted his revenge. Satan eventually entangled Man in his evil plans. He began with his temptation of Adam and Eve, which led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The purpose of Paradise Lost, Milton explained, was to "justify the ways of God to men."
Milton is also regarded as having written some of the finest sonnets in English. Like Donne, he favored the Petrarchan form of the sonnet. In the verse below, he uses an enjambment to link the octave to the sestet.
And like Donne, he took advantage of the restrictions imposed by the sonnet to concentrate his mind on the argument at hand. He wrote this sonnet after he had become completely blind in middle age. His eyesight had been poor since his youth, but his practice of reading by candlelight late into the night most certainly put a great strain on his eyes. Now he expresses his despondency and wonders how he can serve God without the eyesight that every writer needs.
As we have seen, the sonnet form seems particularly fitting for such contemplations.
ON HIS BLINDNESS
When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent¹ 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, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day labor, light deny’d?”
I fondly² ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur³, 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.”
¹ Talent – from the Parable of the Talents in the New Testament, which tells the story of a master asking his servants to account for the talents or money he had given them
² fondly – foolishly
³ murmur - complaint