Milton’s Sonnet 19, “When I consider how my light is spent” is one of the best sonnets in English and a poignant meditation on the poet’s own blindness and responsibility to the world and his God.
Written more than a decade before the publication of Paradise Lost, Sonnet 19 finds the poet/speaker disconsolate at its opening, unsure how he will use his talents when he is blind, unsure how he can serve his God (and in a further implication, his country) in his affliction and at his advancing age.
The turn of the sonnet appears when “patience” counsels that God does not *need* any person’s labor, since God is omnipotent and, besides, his servants work by the thousands for his glory. To serve the lord, the speaker reflects, he must merely bear his own burden with grace: “They also serve who only stand and waite.”
And Milton waited, and in his waiting, created Paradise Lost.
Here it is, in all its exquisite glory:
When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re 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 [ 5 ]
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny’d,
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 [ 10 ]
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.
6 thoughts on ““They also serve who only stand and waite.””
A fond favourite – thanks for the reminder. Very few remain attached from school days but this one is a given.
So happy the poem is a fond memory for you! Thanks for stopping by.
You’ve lost me on this one, Carolyn! I have been unable to handle John Milton since being forced to attempt to memorize On His Blindness in school. I say “attempt,” because I was unable to do it. Since then, the only poem I have successfully memorized is “Jabberwocky”! I think I’m scarred for life! Give me a Shakespeare sonnet any day.
I’m sorry you don’t like this one! I find it so moving and yet so clever at the same time — the poet who’s blind, literally and figuratively, who nevertheless in his blindness aligns himself with Homer, the greatest of epic poets.
I’ve liked all your others so far, though! At least since I started following you!
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