A Short Analysis of John Milton’s ‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’

Analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ is a sonnet written by the poet John Milton (1608-74). The poem is about the poet’s blindness: he began to go blind in the early 1650s, in his early forties, and this sonnet is his response to his loss of sight and the implications it has for his life. (It is thought he began to go blind in 1651; he wrote this poem about a year later.) Below, we offer some words of analysis 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
Lodged 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.’

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’: summary

In summary, Milton laments that he is losing his sight when he is barely halfway through life, with much of his important work still to be done. How can he complete his work, which God has given him the talent to do and which God expects him to complete, if he is deprived of his sight? He asks the question to himself, whether God expects him to work even when he has gone completely blind? Patiently, he answers himself: God does not require work or gifts from mankind, because God is a king.

There are thousands of people travelling all over the world, who are able to work and who work hard serving God; but those who merely stand and wait patiently (instead of running about actively serving in other ways) also serve God just as well as those who go out into the world and work hard to please him through their great deeds. (The reference to ‘Talent’ is an allusion to a parable from the Gospel of Mark.)

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’: analysis

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet rhymed abbaabbacdecde; as with traditional Petrarchan sonnets, we can divide the poem up roughly into an octave or eight-line unit (rhymed abba abba) and a sestet or six-line unit (rhymed cde cde). The sonnet form has often been used to stage an argument or debate, not between two people but between two different points of view which are vying to be heard within the poet’s (or speaker’s) own mind. And Milton’s sonnet is a fine example of this.

Milton had led a full and productive life in his youth. He’d proved a precocious poet even while still a (beautiful) student at Cambridge, and as a young man had written acclaimed poems such as his celebrated elegy ‘Lycidas’ and the pair of poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. He’d also been an active pamphleteer for Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. He’d travelled abroad on diplomatic missions: in 1638, while in Florence, he’d even met Galileo. Milton recorded his meeting with Galileo in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, an important early defence of freedom of the press.

But in the early 1650s, Milton’s very livelihood – earning a living by his pen – was suddenly under threat. Without the ability to see, how could he write? (As it happens, he would ‘write’ his greatest and most famous poem of all, the Christian epic Paradise Lost, by dictating it to secretaries.) ‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ reflects this sudden in change in his life.

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ is a technical tour de force, too. The enclosed abba rhymes of the sonnet’s octave neatly capture the poet’s sense of being mentally trapped, with his eyesight – and with it, his whole livelihood – about to be extinguished. But the turn from the octave to the sestet is masterly: after the shrinking of horizons witnessed by the final two ‘a’ rhymes, ‘present’ and ‘prevent’ – only a letter between them, with the meaning of the latter so skilfully capturing the occlusions to Milton’s ambitions – we come to the sestet and are greeted by the word ‘need’, which turns on the ‘denied’ of the octave and twists it into new life.

The use of run-on lines (or enjambment) is also masterly. Every Petrarchan sonnet has a turn or volta which usually comes at the beginning of the ninth line, as the octave gives way to the sestet. You can typically spot the volta because there is a shift in the direction of the poet’s thoughts or argument, e.g. signalled by the ‘But’. But – look at how the turn in Milton’s sonnet comes before the start of the ninth line, midway in the eighth line, with the new sentence beginning ‘But patience …’

‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies …

This subverts our expectations and surprises us, mirroring the poet’s own surprise at having found a counterpoint to his despair sooner than he expected. Patience tells him to sit still and wait, to serve God by sitting still and just being. Patience, it is worth recalling, is etymologically related to the Latin for suffering: we suffer to do something, we endure it.

The poem acknowledges that adapting to sitting and waiting (after having been one of those men rushing around in service to God and country in other ways) will not be easy for the poet, but if he gives it time, acceptance will come. The word ‘serve’, which comes at us again and again in this short poem, achieves its full potential in that final line: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Leave a Reply