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John Milton

John Milton

John Milton: Blindness & Tragedies

Milton's eyesight had been steadily declining for years, most likely the result of untreated glaucoma. By February 1652, he had gone completely blind. At a time before Braille, recorded books or any of the technologies that assist visually impaired people today, blindness was like an intellectual death sentence. Milton was determined not to let that happen. He dictated his business correspondence to a transcriber for as long as he could, and insisted that his daughters read to him. Milton composed a poem to explain his feelings.

"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 returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, 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.""9

On 5 May 1652, just three months after he lost his eyesight, Milton's wife Mary died - three days after giving birth to the couple's fourth child, daughter Deborah. Soon after his wife's death, his one-year-old son John died as well. Milton was heartbroken. He married his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, on 12 November 1656. Barely fifteen months later, Katherine died after giving birth to the couple's only child. The infant girl perished soon after her mother. A grieving Milton wrote the sonnet "On His Deceased Wife," in which the narrator has a vision of his lost spouse: "Her face was veil'd; yet to my fancied sight/ Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd/ So clear, as in no face with more delight."10

With his personal life in shambles, Milton's political fortunes began to go south as well. The reformation that Milton helped to shepherd in did not last long. Following a protracted political struggle after Oliver Cromwell's death, Charles II returned to London and took the throne; Cromwell's body was soon exhumed and publicly defiled in a number of nasty ways. Those who had assisted in the earlier regime were suspect. Milton was arrested in 1659 and briefly imprisoned for a few months. After friends intervened to secure his release, Milton was forced to move out of London and into semi-exile in the country. In 1663, he married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull.

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