Milton's Moment of Grief
During the revolutionary period of the English Civil War, monarchies were toppled, totalitarians were installed, and poetry began to change. John Milton, writer of Paradise Lost and later Regained, was an aide to the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. In particular, Milton was the Secretary of Foreign Tongues, meaning he was responsible for translating Latin communications from neighboring regimes. However, as few other monarchies wanted to associate with a government that had just upended its own, Milton had plenty of time to craft pieces in support of the new Commonwealth. The list includes The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty, Tetrachordon, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, First and Second Defense of the English People, and Eikonklastes. Milton, who later went blind, blamed his condition on the years of service he devoted to the Cromwell government. It is this blinded Milton that one encounters in “When I consider how my light is spent.”
Milton, in one drawn-out sentence, is asking God how he might still serve, even when robbed of sight. However, this question poses a problem for Milton. As a Protestant and a fierce opponent of Catholicism, he would likely avoid any speculation of work for the Lord, as well as any notion of sanctification. Why would he need to work to serve God? Does God desire works, even when he has stolen Milton’s sight? As it happens, this question appears to be rhetorical. Patience personified comes to answer this question during an odd enjambment that is distinctly Milton style.
For Milton and Patience, God does not need the work of man. God does not need the work of man precisely because he is God, as He has “thousands at His bidding speed” (12). Patience reassures Milton that those who serve God best are the ones that bear their own burdens. This, at first reading, contradicts the Gospel of Matthew and parable of talents. Patience tells Milton that, rather than use talent, he may stand and wait upon the Lord.” However, the parable in the Gospel of Matthew says talents are a “death to hide.” While I do not often agree with Milton, I will give him more credit than most would. This poem, which many misinterpret as a reflection on a wasted life, is more of an affirmation of work that one still must finish.
While Patience is telling Milton that he can just wait upon the Lord, he is also instructing the poet, here in the middle of a crisis, to bear the burden that has been thrown on him. The poet and Secretary for Foreign Tongues may no longer be able to see or read, but he may be able to craft works that are influential and worthy of remembrance. Milton has, in effect, freed himself of the burden one may find by directly serving God. Rather, Milton’s blindness becomes a blessing. He is allowed to focus almost solely on his writing. “When I consider how my light is spent” deals less with theology and more with the internal reckoning of a man in turmoil. This poem is how England’s greatest Reformation poet pulls himself out depressive spiral. Yes, he still has much work to do, and dwelling on his own sorrows will not help in his quest. While I may disagree with Milton’s theology, I can only admire the many works of poetry and prose, including Paradise Lost, which he was only able to write after losing his sight.