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John Milton (1608-1674)

Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent


              1When I consider how my light is spent
              2     Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
              3     And that one talent which is death to hide
              4     Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
              5To serve therewith my Maker, and present
              6     My true account, lest he returning chide,
              7     "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
              8     I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
              9That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
            10     Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
            11     Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
            12Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
            13     And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
            14     They also serve who only stand and wait."

Notes

1] The date of composition is uncertain, Milton's blindness, to which this is the first reference in his poetry, became virtually complete in 1652, but if the arrangement of his sonnets is (as it elsewhere appears to be) chronological, the date must be, like that of Sonnet XVIII, 1655. First printed in Poems, 1673.
light: power of vision, to be taken in conjunction with "this dark world." In a letter of 1654 Milton refers to a very faint susceptibility to light still remaining to him.

2] Ere half my days: we must not expect mathematical accuracy. But if we remember that Milton is speaking about his career in God's service, take its beginning in the avowed dedication to that service in Sonnet VII (1632), and assume the scriptural life-span of three score years and ten (which would mean life till 1678), 1652 falls before, and even 1655 does not extend beyond, the half-way mark of Milton's expected career of service.

3-6] The allusion is to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30); death, like the outer darkness into which the unprofitable servant was cast, stands for the utmost in punishment; the Talent was a measure of weight and hence of value; there is here, of course, a play on the word in its modern sense of mental gift or endowment, in Milton's case his gift of poetry.

8] fondly: foolishly.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: John Milton, Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Thomas Dring, 1673). Facs. edn. Complete Poetical Works reproduced in photographic facsimile, comp. by H. F. Fletcher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1943-48). PR 3551 F52 ROBA
First publication date: 1673
RPO poem editor: Hugh MacCallum, A. S. P. Woodhouse
RP edition: 3RP 1.238.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/24

Composition date: 1652 - 1655
Form: sonnet
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde


Other poems by John Milton