If you ever wanted to know what walking on eggshells sounded like in a poem, this sonnet is a prime example. The speaker buries the climax of the first part of the poem – the question of whether God demands "day-labour, light denied" – inside all these other delicate expressions of why light is so important to him. The poem has a lot of short phrases separated by commas and which seemingly bring us further and further from the point, as if Milton is worried that the whole sonnet might crack open into a steaming mass of resentment. It's like if you had a classmate who said, "When I think about how my pencil just broke, I can't finish my math problem, and I like math so much, but you really need an eraser to do it, or else you might be stuck with a wrong answer, which would lead to a bad grade; 'Can I borrow a pencil?' I would want to ask you." Just ask for the darned pencil already!
However, when we consider that the speaker is about to talk to God, we can understand his desire to be cautious. The decision to questioning God's judgment is not to be taken lightly. The speaker is so cautious that he says, "I fondly ask" after he asks the question, which serves to take the sting of arrogance and insubordination out of it. Put another way, the time it takes you as reader to figure out what the speaker is trying to get across lessens the direct force of his statements.
"Patience," by contrast, is more direct. It uses shorter, more declarative sentences like, "His state is kingly." Because they are making complex arguments, both the speaker and "patience" use frequent enjambment, where one lines carries over into the next without a pause. This gives the poem a prose-like and slightly evasive sound (the eggshell thing, again). The entire poem builds to the final line, which does not carry over from the previous line and sounds remarkably clear and straightforward: "They also serve who only stand and wait." And we breathe a sigh of relief that the speaker has managed to hold things together until the end.
This sonnet first appeared in Milton's 1673 collection of Poems simply as the nineteenth sonnet in the collection, or Sonnet XIX. Many readers, including us, refer to it by the first line, "When I consider how my light is spent." Identifying a poem by the first line is standard practice in the poetry world.
But, many more readers refer to the poem as, "On His Blindness." The problem with this title is that it didn't come from Milton. It was given almost a hundred years later by Bishop Newton, a writer and clergyman (source). Now, almost everyone agrees that the poem is most likely about Milton's blindness, but Milton never says so up front, leaving the door open for some interesting ambiguity. If Milton had wanted to say, "Hey, guys, this poem is about my blindness!" he could easily have done so. Newton's invented title changes the way you read the poem, which is why we prefer to use the first line of the poem.
The poem reminds us of those scenes from horror movies where the hero is walking through some dark and dangerous place – chased by monsters or something – and his flashlight/torch/lamp suddenly flickers and goes out. You hear heavy breathing and…what's that?! Did you hear a branch break?!
OK, the speaker is not in mortal danger, but he feels like his soul is endangered. He is left to navigate a "dark" and "wide" world without his vision. What's more, his demanding "Maker" has gone on a trip, and he worries he will be cast into further darkness if he can't make use of his "Talent." That "Talent" is buried deep within him, like a gold coin that has been thrown in a hole and covered up with soil.
In the second half of the poem, "patience" presents a different view of the world. In this view, the world is a huge kingdom with thousands and thousands of servants working to achieve God's will. Some of them speed from continent to continent like the characters in an Indiana Jones movie. Others just stand around until the king calls for them.
Though the speaker may be seething with frustration and even anger at God, he knows that he must tread very carefully if he wants to express himself. He has the skills and intelligence to do great things out in the world, but he has been tripped up by a seemingly trivial problem: his light has run out. Unfortunately, this unlucky event throws a big wrench in his plans to be useful. The speaker imagines that he could have become a famous politician or even, say, the author of one of the greatest epic poems in the English language. (Cough, cough). But now he can't possibly do any of that, right? (Cough, cough, cough.) He's a hard worker, and he can't just sit still! Can he?
You get the impression from reading the first section of the poem that the speaker just wants to shout, "You can't seriously expect me to do my Christian duty without vision. This is a joke, right?" Fortunately, the speaker has a little guy in his shirt pocket named "patience," capable of popping out and delivering a pep talk whenever it looks like the speaker is about to lose his cool. The important thing to remember is that "patience" belongs to the speaker.
Finally, we can see why the speaker thinks he would be so useful to God and to society: he is incredibly smart. With his ability to pack complicated arguments into a few brief lines, he would make an amazing lawyer. Also, he probably knows the Gospels inside and out because the "Parable of the Talents" is one of the least frequently quoted stories from the New Testament. On the other hand, the speaker still has "half [his] days" left to live, so maybe, just maybe, he'll still get around to doing great things.
For a short, 14-line sonnet, this poem is pretty hard. That's Milton for you. Few poets display so much religious and literary knowledge as Mr. Milton, and this poem is no exception. Most people today don't memorize the Gospels like they did back in 17th-century England, but if you don't know the "Parable of the Talents" from Matthew 25, you miss a lot of the context for the poem's symbolism. It would be like reading a poem about "The Rumble in the Jungle" if you had never heard of the legendary boxers Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. Also, there are a lot of double-entendres in this sonnet, and some words like "fondly" have unexpected meanings. In short, this is a poem where Shmoop makes an excellent Sherpa to take you to the top of the mountain. The view is unquestionably worth it.
Some critics think that Milton's blindness gave him an uncanny ability to depict light, darkness, and shadow. This sonnet offers pretty strong evidence for that claim. The central extended metaphor combines the concepts of light and money into symbolism as dense as seven-layer cake. Light and darkness interact in strange ways in Milton's poems. One of the most famous sections in Paradise Lost describes the interior of Hell as having:
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
"Darkness visible." Wow. Milton's blindness proved to him that one can "see" even without light. We should also point out that the distinction between light and darkness is central to Christian theology.
Milton loved the classics, and in the 17th century, "classic" meant anything associated with Ancient Greece or Rome. The heart of the Roman Empire was located in what is now modern-day Italy, and the sonnet was invented in Italy, so it was not a surprise that Milton would favor the original Italian form of the sonnet. This form is divided up into two sections, one with eight lines and one with six. Shakespeare, on the other hand, used a sonnet form that ended with a rhyming two-line couplet. The Italian sonnet form was made popular by the Italian poet Petrarch, who was to the literary Renaissance what The Temptations were to Motown.
The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is ABBAABBAC CDECDE. So, you can see that lines 1, 4, 5, and 8 all rhyme with each other. Unlike a classic Italian sonnet, "When I consider how my light is spent" does not divide cleanly into eight lines and six lines, however. The first section of the poem consists of the speaker trying to frame his foolish question, and the second consists of the response to the question by a figure named "patience." Most Italian sonnets have a sharp thematic turn or "volta" between the two sections, but in this poem the turn is a bit muddled between lines 8 and 9. If you think about it, the confusion makes perfect sense, as it conveys the awkwardness of someone (patience) interrupting someone else (the speaker) before the speaker can say something stupid.
The meter of the poem is classic iambic pentameter, with five iambs (an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable). Some of the lines do not fit the pattern exactly, but the pattern itself is clear:
"Doth God ex-act day-la-bor, light de-nied?"
Finally, this poem features a lot of enjambment, which is when one line runs over into the next without a pause. Just check out the end of each line, and you'll find that over half lack punctuation markers like periods or semi-colons.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This poem is sometimes called "On His Blindness," but the speaker might respond, "Blindness? What blindness? I'm not the one who's blind. It's the world that has run out of light." This argument is like saying that you aren't really running – it's the world that is rolling beneath you like a treadmill. As you can see, Milton uses complicated wordplay to describe why the speaker has a hard time serving God. His "blindness" is like a lamp that runs out of fuel, like the daylight that turns to night, and like a currency that hasn't been used to maximum effect.
The poem hinges on a pun on "talent" in the sense of "skill" and "talent" as a unit of monetary measurement in Biblical times. The parable of talents occurs in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, and it tells the story of two servants improving their own lot by increasing the bounty of their master. In the first section, the speaker compares God to the "lord" in the parable who goes away on a trip and returns to ask what his servants have done with their money. In the second section of the poem, "patience" explains that God is more like a king who does not need all his servants to actively work for him.
"Patience" is an important virtue in Christianity. It allows people to work toward other "theological" virtues like hope and faith. When the speaker begins to question whether God might be kind of a cruel figure for demanding work from people who can't perform it, patience steps in to correct him. The twist, of course, is that the speaker must already have patience in order for the personified figure called "patience" to come on the scene.
On the whole, it's pretty hard to find sexual images in a poem about a guy figuring out how best to serve God.