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"They Also Perform the Duties of a Servant Who Only Remain Erect on Their Feet in a Specified Place in Readiness to Receive Orders": The Dynamics of Stasis in Sonnet XIX ("When I Consider How My Light is Spent")
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Milton Quarterly 32.4 (1998) 109-122

Written at some point subsequent to Milton's Da vidic conquest of the Goliath Salmasius (and after the full personal price of that public victory had been exacted), Sonnet XIX is a curious poem, full of an irony, doubt, and yearning that are only intensified in their reception by the reader's presumptive anticipation of lament. The opening lines "When I consider how my light is spent, / Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide" after all reflect the tragic recognition of an accomplished visionary that the eyesight on which his service to man and God has depended throughout his lifetime is now no longer his to enjoy, leaving "that one Talent, which is death to hide, / Lodg'd with [him] useless" before his mission on earth has been achieved. No matter how much his Soul may be nonetheless "more bent / To serve therewith [his] Maker, and present / [His] true account," it is vir tually impossible within the context of the poem for the reader not to join with the poet in mourning a loss that makes him unable to engage in "day labor" of the kind he has habitually performed for God and England during the preceding forty-four years; and we wonder, as he does, what it is that a blind author can be expected to accomplish in a world without typewriters or Braille. The reader reacts to his dilemma as Milton himself must have done (at least at the onset of his blindness), with bewildered disappointment that God could so ill serve someone who had served his Lord so well, and bereave him of the enjoyment of that glory he had worked with such diligence to achieve, just at the moment that the laurel wreath for his prose conquest of Salmasius was in his grasp. Certainly, we expect the answer to the question "Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?" to be "Of course not!", and are as perplexed as Milton is by the thought that God would bless him with a talent of such magnitude at one cosmic moment, then deprive him entirely of the ability to make use of it in the next. Twenty-twenty hindsight aside, one cannot choose but see Milton at this juncture as with the poet's help the reader envisions the mill-slave Samson at Gaza, that is, defeated, diminished, helpless, and blind among his enemies, resigned by force to the end of his productive life, and abandoned by all of those who should succor him--"from what highth fall'n" to what depth of despair fate has plunged him, and after all, hasn't he given enough? Juxtaposed to the bustling activity of the "thousands [who] at [God's] bidding speed / And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest," and amplified by the reproof ar ticulated by Milton's "patience" that "God doth not need / Either man's work or [God's] own gifts" in recompense for His benevolence to humankind, the problem of how the blinded wordsmith can still "serve . . . [his] Maker, and present / [His] true ac count" despite this "calamitous visitation" thus finds its resolution (according to the received approach) in the seeming inertia of the sonnet's final self-consoling acknowledgment that "they also serve who only stand and wait"--submissive, inactive, obedient, Job-like -- for Messianic release from their earthbound afflictions.

As a result of this persistent and enduring misperception, Milton scholarship has traditionally considered the poet's initial meditation on his blindness to be an anthem to passive resignation, an explication of the poem which has ironically been abetted and promulgated by the Oxford English Dictionary itself. In point of fact, the first part of the title of this section is but a slightly abridged pastiche of those definitions of the words serve, stand, and wait in which the OED specifically invokes, not only Milton's Sonnet XIX in general, but the final line of the poem in particular, to illustrate the historically standard usage of the terms. The full text of "When I Consider . . . " is reproduced below for ease of reference:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days...


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