WHEN I CONSIDER HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT


 Statue of Milton in the garden of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied from 1625-1629.

Statue of Milton in the garden of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied from 1625-1629.

John Milton (1608-1674) was an educated, brilliantly polemical and passionate literary and political figure. He is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, but was also the author of the influential pamphlet on free speech, the Areopagitica. He also wrote shorter poems and sonnets, one of which provides profound insight into his character.

This sonnet, usually known by the title ‘On His Blindness’, which was probably given to the poem after Milton’s death, was probably written in the summer or early autumn of 1655.

                    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.”

Behind these words lies a personal tragedy, for the sonnet was probably written soon after he went completely blind around 1654-5. For a man who sent much of his time reading and translating - as well as writing (he knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and French) - it was a practical disaster as well as an emotional one. The thinking which drives the sonnet is deeply Christian, as is his extraordinary acceptance of his fate - the idea of patience, and that he can find other ways to serve God without his sight. In fact another great poet, Andrew Marvel, who worked as an amanuensis for Milton, poignantly attributed his literary powers and prophetic abilities to a divine “reward” for accepting his blindness with such faith.

Just Heav’n Thee, like Tiresias, to requite,
Rewards with Prophesie thy loss of Sight.
— Andrew Marvell, On Mr Milton's Paradise Lost
                          Milton's cottage, and now museum, at Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

                         Milton's cottage, and now museum, at Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

For it was after this tragedy that Milton composed Paradise Lost, from 1658 to 1664, with the help of Marvel and others acting as amanuensis for his dictation. We can only imagine what he “saw” in his blindness as he wrote, for light, darkness and sight play important roles in the imagery of his epic. Incredible moments like this in Book III will give an indication:

                    Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers

                    Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist dispel from thence

                    Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell

                    Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Or consider the beautiful and tragic philosophical statement about sight in the words he puts into the mouth of Samson in Book III:

                   Since light so necessary is to life,

                   And almost life itself...

They echo those of the first book of the Bible, 'Genesis', in which the third and fourth verses are: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light./And God saw the light, that it was good:", since light was the first thing that God gave to the world. But Milton's words, for example the idiomatic "so necessary", are even more poignant. With this knowledge, the sonnet on his blindness reads with much more power and emotion. The film, with images of the places of Milton's life, will seek to portray these sentiments and sustain the second reading of the sonnet.


                Head of a full-sized statue of Milton in St Giles, Cripplegate, which stands near to his tomb.

               Head of a full-sized statue of Milton in St Giles, Cripplegate, which stands near to his tomb.