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.
Vision, Light, and Darkness
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.
Line 1: Vision is not same thing as "light," although vision requires light. So, we can't just substitute one word for the other. Milton is using a metaphor to compare his vision to a light source that could run out, like an old-fashioned lamp that burns through its oil.
Line 2: "Ere half my days" is a way of saying, "Before my life is through." But "days" also introduces the idea of daylight. The speaker's "days" are now more like nights. He uses another metaphor to compare his lack of vision to an imagined world that does not have light. The phrase "this dark world and wide" is also an example of alliteration.
Line 7: The speaker compares God – again using metaphor – to a master who makes his servants work in darkness. He "denies" them light, which sounds heartless.
The Parable of the Talents
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.
Line 1: The word "spent" becomes a pun when we read it in light of the discussion of money and currency in the next few lines. The speaker's ability to see is like a currency, and he has unfortunately burned through it too soon. That "light" was supposed to last him all the way through his retirement!
Lines 3-5: The word "Talent" has a double meaning, as described above. The whole Biblical parable about hiding the talent and not turning the master's currency into a profit is used as an extended metaphor in which God is compared to the lord, while the speaker is the third servant who has buried the money.
Line 6: The word "account" is also a double-entendre that works on both sides of the extended metaphor. In one sense, "account" is a story of justification for how the speaker has used his time on earth. In another sense, the "account" is the amount of money the servant in the parable is able to show to his lord. The servant must give this account after his lord has "returned" from traveling.
Lines 11-12: We think that the observation that God's "state is Kingly" is meant to contrast God with the lord from the parable.
"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.
Line 7: The speaker is about to ask a rhetorical question about God's justice before patience interrupts him.
Line 8: The virtue of patience is personified as "patience," the amazing advice giver. In the second half of the poem, patience replies to the speaker's question.
Line 11: The metaphor in the first half of this line compares God's rule over men to the wooden yoke that guides farm animals.
Lines 12-13: These lines present an image of servants rushing all over the world, by land and by sea, to serve God. These "servants" are Christian soldiers, merchants, politicians, clergy, etc. Lines 11-14 form an extended metaphor comparing service to God with service to the most powerful king in the world.
Line 14: The word "wait" is a pun. It means "wait" in the sense that the speaker will wait until the end of his life to meet his ultimate fate, and also in the sense that a person "waits" on a more powerful person simply by standing there until he is needed.