Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent
By John Milton
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 retuning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, 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.”
In the last line, Milton reflects that he has a place in God’s world despite his disability. This Sonnet was numbered 19, but in its first published version, Milton’s 1673 poems, it was numbered 16. Its more well-known title is “On his Blindness”, which was assigned by Thomas Newton in his assemble of Milton’s poems.
I find it particularly interesting, that when Milton writes about the “talents”, he is referring to the parable of the talents from the New Testaments. The parable of talents appears in both Matthew and Luke, eluding to the utilization of personal abilities. A master decided to travel across the sea, leaving behind his goods to his servants. Upon his return, the master assesses the management of his goods by the two servants.
The first and second servants explain that they have put their talents into work, resulting in doubling the value of the property they received. Both of them were rewarded:
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:23)
The third servant, however, had decided to “play it safe”, and buried his talent underground. In turn, he was punished by his master:
“Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew, 25:24-30)
It seems that here Milton is talking about his lack of talent to read foreign languages (although I don’t see how this could be important talent, considering that Milton is such a great English poet). Moreover, the last sentence, “They also serve who stands and wait.” seems to refer to people who due to disability can not actively contribute based on his talent. Nevertheless, Milton seems to argue here, that standing and waiting are enough? so intentions are more important than actions?