Sunday Pages: "On His Blindness"
The 19th sonnet of John Milton.
John Milton is remembered mostly for Paradise Lost, an epic work not much read these days, much less understood. With his glower, his wig, and his lengthy free verse dissertation on heaven and hell, he is the paradigmatic DWEM—dead white European male—so overrepresented in the canon of Western literature.
“Don’t write this down,” Donald Sutherland’s English professor tells his bored class in Animal House, “but I find Milton as boring as you find Milton. His wife found him boring, too. He’s long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our society, and his jokes are terrible.”
Anyone who finished all 12 books of Paradise Lost can attest to Milton’s long-windedness, and he’s no W.S. Gilbert or Monty Python when it comes to the humor. But the idea that he doesn’t translate well into our society is balderdash. Born in 1608, John Milton lived through, and participated in, one of the more chaotic periods of British history. When the American colonists found the British monarch overly tyrannical, they declared independence from him. When, a century and a quarter earlier, the British found their own king overly tyrannical, they [checks notes] beheaded him and set up a new government.
It’s easy to gloss over that pesky detail in Global History, but on January 30, 1649, before the gathered crowd outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall, Charles I literally put his head on the chopping block. An executioner removed the royal noggin with one death blow, held the lifeless head aloft, and then tossed it to the frenzied soldiers below, like Magic Johnson feeding Kareem in the post. This actually happened. Long before the Marxist Russians gunned down the Romanovs, or the French radicals executed their own feckless roi, the staid, stodgy Brits beheaded their king.
And John Milton—anti-monarchist, small-R republican, proto-libertarian in the purest sense of the word—was in the middle of it all. He was all for it. Before he dedicated himself to poetry, he was a pamphleteer. Trapped in a marriage so blah that Animal House makes fun of it 300 years later, he wrote a treatise on the virtues of divorce that the powers that be did not approve of. Other than Paradise Lost and the sonnets, his best-known work is probably the Areopagitica, a pamphlet championing free speech—or, rather, blasting Parliament’s passage of the Licensing Order of 1643, which held that all published work had to be first approved by government censors. In making his (long-winded) argument, Milton writes:
And as for regulating the Presse, let no man think to have the honour of advising ye better then your selves have done in that Order publisht next before this, that no book be Printed, unlesse the Printers and the Authors name, or at least the Printers be register’d. Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectuall remedy, that mans prevention can use.
Update the old-timey language, and maybe strike the line about execution, and this could be advice given right now to Elon Musk on the regulation of Twitter: Go back to what you were doing before, and don’t let anonymous accounts disseminate slanderous lies. (One wonders what would Milton have made of Section 230.)
His political activism got Milton into trouble after the Restoration. For a time he went into hiding, and was briefly imprisoned. I have long maintained that the religious themes of his subsequent poetical work should be read as stand-ins for his politics. In Paradise Lost, God represents the monarchy, while Satan and his parliament of devils are the republican system Milton favored; this is why the demons are so much more compelling.
By 1652, when he was 44 years old, John Milton was totally blind. This would be a difficult handicap for anyone to bear, but especially for a scholar who made his living reading and writing. That he managed to write Paradise Lost, one of the greatest works of English literature, with this disability makes the achievement even more miraculous. The only analog that comes to mind is the deaf Beethoven composing his Ninth Symphony.
Milton contemplates his condition in his untitled 19th sonnet, which subsequent editors called “On His Blindness.” This was one of the first poems I shared on “Sunday Pages,” almost three years ago. I’m going to break it down a bit further now.
The power of the poem lies in its structure. Thirteen of the 14 lines are a jumble, with sentences that skip lines, strange word choices, and odd rhymes. Then that last line, one complete sentence, hits you like an executioner’s axe-blow. It begins:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
He’s wallowing in self-pity, contemplating how he will have to live the second half of his life without sight.
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.
“The only thing I’m good at is writing,” he thinks, “and how can I do that in my present state? All I want to do is serve the cause”—remember, the religious talk is really political—“and now I’m sidelined.”
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies:
Again, he’s pitying himself (and who can blame him?): “Do they really expect me to do what I’m good at when I can’t fucking see? Seriously? What the actual fuck?” It is Patience, the virtue he’s most in need of, that provides the response:
God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; His state
In other words: “Don’t flatter yourself, big guy. No one is irreplaceable. God doesn’t need you, however talented you might think you are. He’s God, ffs! The best way to serve God/the cause is to show some grace: deal with what you have to deal with and STFU about it.”
And then, the end:
Thousands at His bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
The perfect iambic pentameter of the last line, the wonderful poetic construction of the complete sentence, gets me every time. This is the voice of reason, reassuring him that not everyone is fit, or fated, to serve in every capacity—and that’s okay!
And this translates perfectly into modern society. Each of us has a role to play in the fight for democracy (a system of government the 17th century tyrant-hating poet championed). No one can do everything, but we must each do our part. And the part varies. The important thing is to be ready and willing—even if, like Milton, we fear we’re not able.
Photo credit: Milton’s signature.