ABOUT THE POET:
John Milton (Born December 9, 1608 – died November 8, 1674) was an English poet of the late Renaissance period. He is most noted for his epic poem on the fall of Satan and Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden, Paradise Lost, which he composed after having gone blind. He studied at Cambridge University and was proficient in Latin, Greek, and Italian. His Puritan faith and opposition to the Church of England led to his involvement in the English Civil War. After the ascension of the Puritan general and parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell over the Commonwealth of England, Milton was given a high position, making him essentially head propagandist.
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
Lodg’d 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.”
Meaning of the Poem
This poem deals with one’s limitations and shortcomings in life. Everyone has them and Milton’s blindness is a perfect example of this. His eyesight gradually worsened and he became totally blind at the age of 42. This happened after he served in an eminent position under Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary Puritan government in England. To put it simply, Milton rose to the highest position an English writer might at the time and then sank all the way down to a state of being unable read or write on his own. How pathetic!
The genius of this poem comes in the way that Milton transcends the misery he feels. First, he frames himself, not as an individual suffering or lonely, but as a failed servant to the Creator: God. While Milton is disabled, God here is enabled through imagery of a king commanding thousands. This celestial monarch, his ministers and troops, and his kingdom itself are invisible to human eyes anyway, so already Milton has subtly undone much of his failing by subverting the necessity for human vision. More straightforwardly, through the voice of Patience, Milton explains that serving the celestial monarch only requires bearing those hardships, which really aren’t that bad (he calls them “mild”) that life has burdened you with (like a “yoke” put on an ox). This grand mission from heaven may be as simple as standing and waiting, having patience, and understanding the order of the universe. Thus, this is a great poem because Milton has not only dispelled sadness over a major shortcoming in life but also shown how the shortcoming is itself imbued with an extraordinary and uplifting purpose.