Cover image featuring John Milton for Sonnet On his Blindness

The Complete Meaning of On His Blindness by John Milton

“On His Blindness” is a sonnet by John Milton and if you are reading the works of Milton, you’d be taken aback by this poem. Known for his devotion to God and for creating poems in praise of the lord, “On His Blindness” shows Milton’s faith getting shaken. 

“On His Blindness” is also called “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” or Sonnet 19 or Sonnet 16. Milton never gave this sonnet any name. The sonnet is a heartfelt appeal to God watching from above.

Before we get started with the poem, here is something readers should know; John Milton had gone blind at the age of 48 after suffering from deteriorating vision for years. It is this event that led Milton to write this sonnet. 

Let’s take a look at the sonnet first and then get into the meaning and analysis, stanza by stanza.

On His Blindness (Sonnet 19)

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
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-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."
-John Milton

About the Sonnet

Style: On His Blindness is written in the Petrarchan style

Rhyming Pattern: The rhyming pattern of this sonnet is a b b a/ a b b a/ c d e c d e 

Meter: Iambic Pentameter (except line 4)

Details: Part of the Trinity Manuscript poem collection.

Analysis and Meaning of On His Blindness

While reading the entire sonnet in one go can lead to confusion often due to the archaic style of the sonnet, or the complexities of religious ideas presented by Milton. Let’s break the sonnet down into four stanzas and analyze each one for a better understanding. 

Stanza 1: The Situation 

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

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

The first stanza describes the situation Milton is with his blindness. He has turned blind, but he is also confused as to what shall he do now. He is a poet and a writer, but he cannot read and hardly write. 

His “light” means his vision, or the ability to see light. It is spent before half of his days are left in this dark and wide world. “And that one talent is death to hide” is an allusion to the biblical story of the ‘Parable of Talent’. 

The Parable of Talent is about three servants in which one servant receives three talents, the second one receives two and the last one receives one. After some time, the servant that received one talent is punished as he did not use it but kept it buried and hidden. 

Milton is saying that it would be death to hide this one talent (of being able to write and praise God) as it is lodged with him useless now since he cannot see. Here’s the interesting part. If you continue reading the line, it goes “though my soul more bent…”

Milton has brilliantly used enjambment to create two meanings from a single line. If read till here, it implies that his soul has been bent or immoral lately because he is questioning his purpose, the Will of God.

Stanza 2: The Shaking of Faith

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

In the second stanza, Milton’s faith is shaken, only a little, but it does shake when he asks “does God expect me to continue using my talent?” There is a sense of doubt, a loss of purpose and meaning. 

Continuing from the first stanza, Milton says that even though the gift that he received from God is useless, his soul is still bent to serve the Maker and present what he sees and experiences in the form of poetry. 

He asks if God wants him to continue his work even when the ability to work has been denied. Does God expect his “day-labor” even when the light has been denied (back in Milton’s time, people used to work only in daylight.)

Stanza 3: Faith Restored

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

Milton says that after asking this, his patience replies. Notice here that Patience has been personified here. His patience replies to stop the ‘murmurs’ or the doubts Milton has after losing his sense of vision.

His patience says that God does not need someone’s work or the very gifts he gave to the mortals. But the people who bear his mild yoke are the ones who serve him the best. ‘Mild yoke’ is another allusion to a Biblical element. 

A yoke is a wooden bar that oxen, horses, and other animals of labor have to bear on their necks to pull a cart or plow the field. Jesus’s ‘mild yoke’ is the two commandments He gave to love God and to love each other. It is what ‘mild’ means here. 

There is no burden that God puts on people. God just wants people to love Him and love fellow humans. The people who bear this ‘yoke’ serve him the best. 

Stanza 4: Milton’s Purpose

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 final tercet, Milton finds his purpose, after losing the ability to use his talent. The realm of God is kingly, and there are thousands of people doing and offering their bit, serving God. But the people who just stand and wait are also serving the Lord. 

Milton finds his purpose in just being patient and waiting for God to reveal his plan. He does not have to worry or question what’s left for him to do, or what must he do now he cannot use his talent. He realizes that all he must do is wait, listen to his patience, and have faith in God. 

Summary Capsule

“On His Blindness” is a term that suits this sonnet the best. The ‘He’ here is not God, but Milton himself (since this title was given by someone else.) Blindness here is not only the inability to see but also the inability to realize. 

Any person would have their faith shaken if they lose the ability to do the one thing they are meant to do. But Milton regains his faith when he rests his racing heart and fretting mind. He understands that you do not need to work to be in God’s embrace. 

Theme

The theme of ‘On His Blindness’ is acceptance of oneself when losing the purpose of life. When someone loses the ability to be useful to the world, this sense of being useless can have a big toll. What is the purpose of existing? How should one believe that he can do what God has intended him to do? 

Faith in the self and faith in God is one of the major themes of the poem. The true meaning of serving God, and having the strength to be calm, patient, and stop the thoughts that make you feel weak and useless. 

Literary Devices

The Literary Devices used in the Poem On His Blindness are:

Personification– The poet has personified “Patience” in the poem by giving it human qualities. For example:

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Imagery– The poet has used imagery throughout the poem with the purpose of making the readers perceive with their five senses. For example:

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Enjambment– A few examples of Enjambment from the poem include:

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

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

Alliteration– A few examples of alliteration are:

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

Pun– A Pun is a literary device which involves words with similar or identical sounds but with different meanings. The poet uses this device in the first line of the poem ” When I consider how my light is spent,” where light refers to his eyesight and also his life before getting blind.

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