In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning of a famous line from John Milton
‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ This line has the ring of the proverb about it, but rather than being some anonymous piece of hand-me down wisdom, the quotation has a very definite and clearly discoverable origin. For ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ is the closing line in one of the most celebrated sonnets by the seventeenth-century poet John Milton.
Milton (1608-74) is now best-remembered for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) about the Fall of Man, which, in Milton’s telling, comes about when Satan is cast out of heaven and sets up his capital in Hell. He names this capital city Pandemonium – meaning literally ‘all demons’ – from which we get the word more commonly used to denote a state of chaos and disorder. But Paradise Lost was in many ways the crowning achievement in what had already been a long and impressive literary career.
Milton had first developed a reputation for poetry while a student at Cambridge, where he was also renowned for his looks. As a young man he had written acclaimed poems such as his celebrated elegy ‘Lycidas’ (about the death of his university friend, Edward King, who had drowned) and the pair of poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. He was an influential pamphleteer for Cromwell during the English Civil War. But then, in the early 1650s, his sight began to fail him in a serious way, and he knew he would soon be completely blind.
Milton wrote a moving sonnet as a 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.) The sonnet runs:
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.
Milton acknowledges 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? This is where ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ comes in. For he goes on:
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.’
In other words, 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. Or, to put it more pithily, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’
As the word ‘wait’ suggests, patience is a virtue, and especially a Christian one. Standing and waiting cannot be equated with ‘doing nothing’, but is instead about learning forbearance and accepting one’s own (physical) limitations, the better to achieve spiritual purity. The word ‘patience’ comes from the Latin for ‘suffer’: patience isn’t meant to be easy. Milton gives Patience (a personification of this virtue) not only the last word but much of his sonnet’s concluding sestet, so that she (Patience is always a ‘she’) can reassure the poet that he should lose his obsession with action and speed as markers of true faith in God. No: everyone who heeds God’s message and waits for God’s plan to unfold is, as it were, doing their bit.
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.) ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ proved to be something of an understatement for Milton’s later career: even when he had lost his sight, he found a way not only to stand and wait, but to sit and dictate. The result would be Paradise Lost.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.
To those familiar with middle-of-the-road Christian beliefs, “lest he returning chide;” in line 6 is fairly puzzling: a mild “chiding” from the godhead would seem to be the least of one’s worries at the final trump. More to be feared would be: “Get thee hence to the fires of Hell.” I wonder if Milton may have felt he was one of the Elect, and therefore in no danger of the everlasting bonfire: chiding was the most he needed to fear. God’s plan unfolding again.
In the first line, there is a pun on “spent” – “spent” meaning “employed” and “spent” in the sense of “used up”. The line could mean, “How I employ my waking hours” or, “Bearing in mind that I have lost/am losing the use of my eyesight,” There are also puns here on “serving” and “waiting”. If you go to a restaurant, a waiter serves your food. The “one talent” is a punning metaphor based on the currency unit referred to in the New Testament parable of the talents.