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Analysis of Poem 'Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent' by John Milton

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

John Milton (1608-74)

John Milton (1608-74)

John Milton's Sonnet 19 is often referred to as On His Blindness or When I Consider How My Light Is Spent. It also is sometimes numbered 16, as it appeared in the publication Poems etc. upon several Occasions of 1673.

The sonnet deals with the idea of someone being useless (unable to work) in the eyes of God, unable to fulfill their ambition (as a writer in Milton's case) because of physical incapacity (blindness) which could lead to spiritual downfall.

But in the final reckoning, it is faith and not labour which counts. God is still God—to those who work and for those who do not.

In many respects, it is a straightforward Petrarchan sonnet of 14 lines, with an octet and a sestet. But the rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde is a little bit different than the traditional Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abbacddcefgefg).

  • The octet (first eight lines) is a thoughtful reflection on blindness and personal frustration, the speaker aware of his God-given skill, to write an epic, which blindness will undermine.
  • The sestet (the last six lines) focuses on the patience needed and perspective gained with regards to God, the speaker's Maker. The speaker accepts his blindness. God is great; even those who are not creative initiators are part of the divine whole.
  • Reading through, there is a sense of humility in the face of such a fate, the speaker asking questions, self-referencing to an extent, about his position relative to God.
  • Some scholars have noted a 'servant before master' situation, the speaker accepting of blindness but wanting to put it in perspective by first questioning, then answering. There is no self-pitying cry of 'Why me?'

Overall then, this sonnet is a positive reminder of the inclusive nature of the divine. Milton's blindness, though frustrating, didn't stop him contributing to society and to the cause he believed in. He may have doubted his relevance to God (by questioning) but concludes that, in the end, all serve him.

It has become one of Milton's most popular sonnets because many feel it deals with Milton's own blindness, the onset of which began sometime before the early 1650s, when the sonnet was penned. This was a time of political turmoil in England, the civil war resulting in the execution of the king, Charles I, and power being given to Oliver Cromwell and the republicans, Milton among them.

Milton's literary talents were put to good use. He wrote political documents in support of the republican cause, attacking royalist claims. He was already blind in one eye when he wrote, in the Second Defense:

'the choice lay before me between dereliction of a supreme duty and loss of eyesight; in such a case I could not listen to the physician, not if Esculapius himself had spoken from his sanctuary; I could not but obey that inward monitor, I know not what, that spake to me from heaven. I considered with myself that many had purchased less good with worse iII, as they who give their lives to reap only glory, and I thereupon concluded to employ the little remaining eyesight I was to enjoy in doing this, the greatest service to the common weal it was in my power to render.'

'My often thought is,' he writes to Leonard Philaras, 1654, 'that since to all of us are decreed many days of darkness, as saith the Wise Man, Eccles. 11, 8, my dark thus far, by the singular favour of Providence, hath been much tolerable than that dark of the grave, passed as it hath been amid leisure and study, cheered by the visits and conversation of friends.'

Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

Sonnet 19 by Milton

Sonnet 19 by Milton

What Is the Metre in Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent?

Sonnet 19 (On His Blindness/When I Consider How My Light Is Spent) is for the most a traditional iambic pentameter sonnet.

However, three lines contain the trochee, an inverted iamb, which has the stress on the first syllable. Lines 4, 10 and 11 can be seen with a dark star (*) below, stressed syllables in bold throughout.

Iambic feet give familiar rhythm to many of the lines, daDUM x5, with the first syllable unstressed, the second stressed and so on.

'When I / consid / er how / my light / is spent,
Ere half / my days, / in this / dark world / and wide,
And that / one Tal / ent which / is death / to hide
Lodged with / me use / less, though / my Soul / more bent *
To serve / therewith / my Ma / ker, and / present
My true / account, / lest he / return / ing chide;
“Doth God / exact / day-lab / our, light / denied?
I fond / ly ask. / But pa / tience, to / prevent
That mur / mur, 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 King / ly. Thou / sands at / his bid / ding speed
And post / o’er Land / and O / cean with / out rest:
They al / so serve / who on / ly stand / and wait.'

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© 2020 Andrew Spacey