Text of the Poem

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
Lodg'd 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-labour, 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."

Footnotes

  1. The speaker’s reference to his “one talent” suggests a third metaphorical meaning of light. Light is a classic motif for knowledge—intellectual illumination. For the writer, light represents inspiration. When the speaker claims that his “light is spent,” one can say that he is lamenting a case of “writer’s block.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Patience reminds the speaker that God is like a king and has many servants across the world to do his bidding. Some ride over land and ocean carrying out His will, but others simply need to serve him by waiting. Patience relieves the speaker’s anxiety by telling him that it is acceptable to wait for divine inspiration to tell him what God wants him to do.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. “Mild yoke” is an allusion to the Bible: “My yoke is easy, my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). In the law of the Old Testament, Jewish people were required to follow over 600 strict religious laws. Jesus used this metaphor to relieve them of the burden of these laws. He claimed that there were only two laws man needed to follow: love God, love each other. Thus the “yoke” and “burden” of Jesus was both forgiving and “light.” To “bear his mild yoke” means to follow Jesus’s two commandments to love God and love each other.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. A “yoke” is a heavy wooden bar attached to the heads of two oxen, horses, or mules so that they can pull a cart or plow. It is designed to limit the animals’ mobility so that they walk together in the direction in which the farmer wants them to go. A yoke is extremely heavy and implies a great burden or difficult task.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. This line draws from the Calvinist belief in predestination. Unlike Catholic doctrine, which claimed one could repent in order to save their soul, Calvinists believed that works on earth had no bearing on one’s salvation. People were predestined for either damnation or salvation at the time of their birth. God therefore did not need “man’s works” because only belief revealed one’s internal piety.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Notice that Patience begins speaking at the volta, or thematic turn. This turn marks a change in the speaker’s mentality. He stops despairing about his lost sight and begins to believe that there is divine purpose in what seems like an unfortunate event.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Notice that the rest of the poem is spoken by “Patience.” Patience is a personified entity that embodies “patience,” the capacity to calmly endure pain, affliction, and inconvenience. The personification of human characteristics is a form of allegory that marks this character as the person who will reveal the moral of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. “Fondly” in this time meant foolishly. The speaker immediately apologizes for the question that he has posed by calling himself foolish. In a way, this shows the speaker recant his question.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. “Light denied” in this context means blindness. Notice that there is an undercurrent of blame in this metaphor. “Denied” suggests that someone took his sight. This reveals both the speaker’s anger over losing his sight and his inability to express this anger at God.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The first six lines of the poem lead up to this question: “Does God demand that you work if you have lost your sight?” The first six lines of the poem can be seen as the speaker’s extreme uncertainty over whether or not to ask this question. Questioning God’s will was a form of blasphemy that demonstrated one’s lack of faith. Though this speaker does not directly question God’s decision to take away his sight, he does reveal his frustration when he questions what he can do now that he has lost it.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. “He” in this context refers to God. The speaker offers the question in the following line with this caveat that if he is chided for his question, he will recant the question. This reveals the speaker’s anxious and apologetic tone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. Milton adopts a Petrarchan rhyme scheme in order to write this sonnet. The first two quatrains follow an ABBA rhyming pattern, and the sestet uses two tercets of CDE. Following the traditional form of a sonnet, the octet presents a problem that the sestet then resolves.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Notice that enjambment, the continuation of a sentence beyond the end of a line, disrupts the meaning of this sentence as a whole. In this part of the sentence, the speaker means that he is bent in service of God, like a servant who is bowing. However, because this line ends with “bent” it seems at first that his soul is “bent” or crooked, meaning it is in some way immoral or wicked. The division of this sentence, and the divergent meanings implicit within this division, demonstrates the underlying uncertainty throughout this poem. The speaker wonders if he will be able to serve God if he cannot exercise his talents and what will become of his soul if he cannot serve God.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. This is the only line in the poem that breaks iambic pentameter. “Lodg’d” is stressed instead of “with,” forming a trochee. This deviation from the poem’s meter underscores the meaning of the line. His “one talent,” writing, becomes “useless” when it resides in him.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. In line 6, the speaker suggests that his “one talent’ is to present “my true account.” This signals to the reader that the speaker’s talent is writing, an activity that would have been nearly impossible to do in Early Modern England without sight. Because Milton himself went blind in 1652, this poem is conventionally read as autobiographical.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. “Ere” is an adverb that means “before.” The speaker expresses disbelief that he has lost his sight before even half of his life has yet to be lived.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. “Spent” can either mean “passed,” as in, "when I consider how I have spent my days," or it can mean “gone,” as in, "when I consider that my sight is gone."

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. In this context, “light” is a metaphor for both the speaker’s life span and his sight. Since this poem is called “On His Blindness” and we know that Milton went blind in 1652, “light” can be read throughout the poem as a conceit for sight.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Milton says that God's state is kingly, which of course it is. He owns the entire earth and everyone is his servant. Being such a powerful monarch, God could be imagined living in a magnificent palace with hundreds of liveried servants. Among those servants would be those who did nothing but stand at attention waiting for an order to be given from on high. In the last line of his sonnet Milton seems to be suggesting the image of servants who are "serving" by performing their duty of standing and waiting. God has so many servants doing things for him, including thousands who "speed / And post o'er land and ocean without rest," that it is understandable that He would have other servants whose orders are merely to stand and wait at attention until they are called upon. But they are serving by waiting if that is what God wants them to do. The word "stand" in the final line strongly suggests that the servants in questions are "on duty." Imagine the difference if the line read: > They also serve who only sit and wait. The other word that deserves attention is "wait." Imagine the difference if the line read: > They also serve who only sit and rest.

    — William Delaney
  20. How does this sonnet apply to us? It further suggests that each of us is given one or several talents which we are obliged to identify, utilize, and develop throughout our lives or else experience disappointment, failure and frustration. The *Bhagavad-Gita *says something similar: > In the beginning > The Lord of beings > Created all men, > To each his duty. > "Do this," He said, > "And you shall prosper." The problem for many of us is to discover our talent--or talents. Doing this may involve a lot of trial and error. But it is obviously a matter of the utmost importance. "Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness." —Thomas Carlyle "A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope."                         —Ralph Waldo Emerson

    — William Delaney
  21. Note that Milton's protest against his personal loss is mild. The word "murmur" is appropriate to the overall tone of this sonnet. He is resigned to accept whatever fate God imposes upon him. This is also indicated two lines later in the words "mild yoke." When Milton concludes with the words, "They also serve who only stand and wait," he seems to be suggesting that he can serve God by serving as an example of patience, faith, and humility.

    — William Delaney
  22. This is Milton asking the question, not God chiding. The long and complex sentence beginning with "When I consider how my light is spent" leads the poet to fondly, or foolishly, ask: "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" and that first sentence of the sonnet ends with a full stop. All the rest of the sonnet is supposedly spoken by an invisible spirit or angel he calls Patience. Milton's conclusion suggests that he has made appropriate use of his "one talent" and that God will not scold or "chide" him for wasting it.

    — William Delaney
  23. This is the only line in the sonnet in which Milton breaks the iambic meter. Obviously these four words are intended to be read with stress on "Lodg'd" and then on "useless." This is appropriate since the words are intended to sound like a cry of anguish in an otherwise uniformly tranquil and metrically regular poem betokening Milton's "Patience" and his conviction, as expressed in the beautiful concluding line, that "They also serve who only stand and wait." "On His Blindness" is Milton's most famous sonnet, and probably his most famous short poem. We not only feel great pity for this sincerely dedicated man, but he makes us understand what it feels like to be blind.

    — William Delaney