When I Consider How My Light Is Spent by John Milton

Hello and welcome back to The Young Reader’s Review! Recently, I have been rather overwhelmed with work but I have also been avidly reading and analyzing some of the English language’s most influential, finest and well known poems. While reading, one of these works particularly touched me: When I consider how my light is spent (Sonnet XVII, also frequently called On his Blindness, title given by clergyman and writer Bishop Newton) by the poet that has haunted generations of poets following him because of his intensity, drive and genius: John Milton. 

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere (=before) 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, lest he returning chide (= to scold);
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly (means “foolishly” here) ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth (=does) not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke¹, 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 yoke=a wooden frame that is placed around the neck of farm animals

John Milton is widely regarded as the best English poet after Shakespeare. Before reading this review, there are certain things about John Milton’s life that are crucial to the understanding of this poem. For those who do not know, John Milton is an English 17th century poet who is widely acknowledged to have written one the best epic poems contributing to English literature: Paradise Lost (a rather long poem published in 1667. It is separated into twelve sections and is written in blank verse (which is unrhyming iambic pentameter)). Milton wanted to be a poet-prophet, wanted his poems to be immortal. He was a learned poet with an extraordinary aptitude for linguistics: he wrote in Latin, French, Greek, Hebrew and many other languages. Milton often used his poetry to address his political and religious beliefs. He was indeed very religious. Unfortunately, in 1654, Milton became completely blind. The specific cause of this blindness is unknown but are most probably due to a retinal detachment. He had already suffered greatly from partial blindness for four years beforehand. This poem reflects the dolor undergone living in a world of pure darkness devoid of light.

When I consider how my light is spent is most probably an autobiographical poem since verse 2 “Ere half my days in this dark world and wide” implies that the speaker is blind. So, the voice of this poem is very likely to actually be John Milton himself. In summary, the speaker thinks that he did not use “his light”, paraphrasing his sight, wisely since he cannot not use his “talent”, which is writing, anymore in the prospect of serving God. Therefore, the speaker inquires God if he needs to endeavor more because he now cannot make up for the time he lost. God responds in other words that men simply need to bear their own burdens in function of their gravity and to the best of their ability and that the speaker should just wait for him since there are “Thousands” of others that are travelling on “land and ocean” to serve him. 

John Milton is a poet that has a distinctive style that has been adopted by centuries of poets following him, especially when attempting to write English epic poetry ( a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation- Wikipedia). 

In terms of syntactic complexity, his verse has an unusual structure. By studying the structure of his verse in a couple of his poems, I realized that Milton seemed to be fond of placing a noun amidst two qualifying adjectives: 

“in this dark world and wide”, verse 2

As you can tell by the punctuation organizing the whole poem, sentences are complex, meaning that they bear more than one subordinate or coordinate clauses. Perhaps Milton was striving to do so to be able to frame the poem’s metrical construction or maybe it was simply part of his style.
Also, the use of the word “When”, a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause, at the beginning of the poem, creates a sort of suspense, hooking the reader on.

This poem has the rhyme scheme: ABBAABBACDECDE, which is the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet (Petrarca was the earliest sonneteer). Since Milton absolutely adored classics, it is not surprising that he decided to adopt the Petrarchan rhyme scheme and not the Shakespearean sonnet’s (which is abab cdcd efef gg). But, When I consider how my light is spent is composed of one fourteen-line stanza, and is not, unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, segmented into an octave (eight lines of verse) and a sestet (six lines of verse). What is rather bizarre, is that the Petrarchan sonnet usually revolves around the theme of love, which is clearly not the case with this poem. Yet, we will see that this is another form of devotion.

This poem is written in traditional iambic (when a first syllable is unstressed, and the second stressed it is called an iamb) pentameter (five iambs). 
The stressed syllables are the slashes in the example below: 

      ×     / ×       /      ×    / ×              ×
 “They also serve who only stand and wait.” (verse 14)

This poem is suffused in figures of speech and thought. In verse 2, there is a double-alliteration:
“[…] days in this dark world and wide”
Alliterations, the repetition of a consonant at the beginning of a verb, are usually used to enhance a particular aspect of a poem. This might have been used to emphasize the adjectives “dark” and “wide”. There is also a personification (Personification is when you assign the qualities of a person to something that isn't human- Your Dictionary) since the virtue of patience, which is fundamental in Christianity, is personified as “Patience”, a living being who speaks: “But Patience to prevent that murmur, soon replies”. In addition to this, in the upper-half of the poem, God is compared to the yoke that steers farm animals. This is strange and paradoxical since the use of the word “yoke” gives us the impression that not only God’s servants are animals, but are a sort of slave. Also, the adjective “kingly” qualifies God, implying that God is a ruler like a king. These tropes are metaphors. 

In my opinion, I believe that John Milton’s poetry most definitely rivals Shakespeare’s. I chose this poem today because I thought that the theme was touching: a man is in distress because he cannot use his talent anymore and regrets the way he frivolously used light before losing his eyesight. Furthermore, I found Milton’s way of developing this theme extremely well thought, making it the masterpiece it is. Perhaps this poem also particularly caught my attention because it is all in all rather short and the vocabulary is not very difficult to comprehend. Yet, I was curious since When I consider how my light is spent seemed to be much more complex than it seems and I was surprised to see at what point a 14-verse poem can be so “deep”. 

That is it for this week’s review! I hope that you enjoyed it! If you liked this poem and this review, I highly recommend you to pursue reading more of Milton’s poetry, especially Paradise Lost. Don’t forget to follow my Google + and to go see my Tumblr poetry blog (just click on it in the side bar)! Have a great day and see you next time! (・⊝・)

Copyright © 2017 Margaux Emmanuel

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