One of my favorite poems is John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” Today, we know Milton as one of the greatest poets of the English language, author of Paradise Lost, and featured in countless high school and college literature anthologies. When he wrote this poem, however, Milton was better known as a political writer and activist. He had supported Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War and been appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues for Cromwell’s Republican government.
In his mid–40s, though, Milton became completely blind. In an age before Braille, audiobooks, or computers, his career as a scholar and writer seemed to be over.
When I consider how my life is spent E’re 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 deny’d, 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 milde yoak, 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 waite.
The poem is thick with Biblical allusions and reflection. Milton begins in despair over his blindness — “My life is spent.” This is not only depression over his physical condition, but a spiritual despair that he will no longer be able to serve God. Milton refers to his “one Talent,” an allusion to Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14–30), in which a master returns to his servants, expecting them to have invested their talents (then, a form of currency, but by Milton’s day, coming to mean “talent” in the modern sense) and gained a significant return. Milton’s “one Talent” — his ability to read and write — is now useless.
Milton consider sarcasm as a response: “Does God demand day labour, when the light is gone?” He asks this “fondly” — that is, foolishly — and then calls it a “murmur,” like the murmurs of the Israelites after the Exodus, rebellious talk against God and his design.
Those Who Only Stand and Wait
The sonnet turns at this point, Milton reminding himself that God does not need man’s work or “his own gifts” — that is, God’s own gifts. The point of the parable of the talents is not that God needs a good return on investment, but that the servants of God are expected to serve in the manner directed by their master, rather than substituting their own judgment for God’s. The noblest state of being is that serving God, whatever form that may take. In the final image of the poem, Milton creates an image of a royal court, some of whose messengers “post o’re Land and Ocean” but others stand at the ready for their turn.
This conclusion to the poem is a complicated one. Remember, Milton at this time had been a chief propagandist against the English King. He had even written a book defending the execution of King Charles I. By comparing God to a King, Milton was not using an idle metaphor. He was making a radical statement about the sovereignty of God as ruler of the cosmos, the one to whom we rightfully owe our entire allegiance.
In this context, waiting doesn’t mean a state of rest, and it also doesn’t mean that someone is of no use or a second choice behind a better servant. The waiting image used by Milton isn’t like waiting for a friend who is chronically late, and it also isn’t like a worker on break, resting up while waiting for his next shift to begin.
The Hard Work of Waiting
The best image I can think of is the role of servants during meals on Downton Abbey. If you have ever seen the show, the meals shared by the upper class Grantham family are truly a spectacle. The Granthams never eat without a bevy of specialized servants, each of whom has a specific job and expected role. It’s a minor scandal if the wrong servant uses the wrong hand to ladle soup into the wrong bowl, or if a kitchen maid brings a dish into the dining room rather than handing it off to one of the formally dressed male servants.
After a course has been served, however, the job of the dining room servants changes. Each takes a station around the edge of the room and waits, standing at the ready to refill a wine glass, take away a dirty dish, or fill any need that might arise. They aren’t taking a break from their job. Waiting is their job. If they were not waiting and ready during these moments of relative calm (and didn’t have a good excuse for not waiting), they could be fired or disciplined for dereliction of duty just as if they had not taken care of one of their more active responsibilities.
Milton, in his poem, doesn’t have a clearly defined duty like the specialized Edwardian servants of Downton Abbey. He does, however, have the same immediate assignment: to wait. He doesn’t know what his next assignment will be, when it will come, or even whether it will ever come. This waiting can be frustrating, as seen by Milton’s temptation to become discouraged and sarcastic about his fate. If he were to give in to these negative thoughts, though, he would be negligent in his responsibilities toward God. He’s being asked not merely to wait, but to be ready for his next task.
We, like Milton and the Downton Abbey servants, are often asked to wait for our next assignment, the next opportunity to serve. Unlike the servants – but like Milton – we usually don’t know what that next opportunity will be or how long we will have to wait.
This kind of waiting is hard work. I’ve often felt frustration, confusion, and discouragement – just like Milton – when I can’t understand why I can’t use my gifts now in the way that I expect to use them. We know, of course, how Milton’s story ends – he went on to compose Paradise Lost, the greatest epic ever written in English and one of the greatest poems in any language. In the midst of his waiting, however, he had no idea whether his literary plans would ever be completed.
Whether we’re waiting or busy with work, none of know how the future will turn out. As Milton concludes in his sonnet, the important thing is not your activity or lack of activity, but who you are serving.