An Analysis of the Poem-When I Consider How My Light is Spent by John Milton
In the poem, “when I consider how my light is spent,” John Milton uses biblical literature to consider the second half of his life, which will be difficult for him because of his blindness and comes to the conclusion that man (he) must employ his God- given talent irrespective of the limitation he faces. This poem considers the relationship between man and God.
The poem commences with a tone of lamentation, as the poet describes how he is living his life in a “wide” world which is now “dark” because of the loss of his sight. He refers to his sight as a light that has been used up; “….how my light is spent.” The first two lines of the poem gives the reader an impression that the poet is a man who had been physically impaired while in service to his state, like a soldier who lost either his limb, sight or legs in a battle and is now unable to use his talent to the fullest. However, Milton’s biography reveals he was referring to his blindness. Milton went totally blind at age forty-three, after he had defiled previous advice from doctors concerning his deteriorating sight in his early thirties. Doctors warned him against persisting in the eye-straining labour of writing pamphlets and public statements in defense and support of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime in which he served as Latin Secretary, a post similar to our Secretary of State today. But Milton chose to continue.
The tone shifts in the third line from that of a lamentation to great distress. Milton reflects his own anger at the difficulty his blindness posed him while doing the activity he cherished, writing. He cannot even use the one way out which is to commit suicide, even though he thinks in this direction. He refers to death with sarcasm as a “talent”, something that is rarely done in society. According to him, suicide will remain a “useless talent” within him which will never be used.
From the middle of the fourth line, the tone shifts significantly from great distress to faith and hope. It was his faith that kept him strong and stopped him from taking his own life. The strength of his faith is shown in the next lines of the sonnet. He is eager to serve his Maker no matter how he feels, as he will have to present to Him a “true account” of his life. He will do this in case he is chided when he returns to God and is asked if he carried on with his life even without his eyesight. Rather than take his life he relishes the prospect of meeting his master as an achiever or a servant, who has made judicious use of his talent, instead of a man that cut his own life short out of frustration.
The last eight lines of the poem switches between the tone of doubt, conviction and praise because the poet poses a question, which he answers himself and also praises God’s royalty. Milton asks; “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied? He answers his own question by saying that God does not need “either man's work or his own gifts.” This means that God has no need for the gifts of men. According to the poet, God’s state is so kingly that he is served by thousands of angels, who are at his beck and call; to do his bidding. He also adds that angels will serve those who are patient and wait through all sorts of challenges that they face.
The poet’s situation parallels the bible story in Mathew 25, where a master who was embarking on a journey gave his three servants talents (money) to trade with. On his return, the master found out that unlike the other two servants who made profits with their talents, the third servants failed trade with his talent. The master quickly honoured the two servants and rebuked the third for being wasteful. The idea that those who best bears God’s mild yoke serve him best is emphasized. Milton considers his blindness as a mild yoke which he must bear in order to be rewarded by his maker.
This poem features a lot of enjambment, as one line often runs over into the next without a pause. This effectively renders half of the lines without punctuation markers at the end like periods or semi-colons. Also, the poet uses lots of alliteration like,” dark world and wide,” “God doth not need,” and “thousands at his bidding speed,” to emphasize the important points in the answer to the question posed in the poem.
The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is ABBAABBAC CDECDE. Lines 1, 4, 5, and 8 all rhyme with each other.
“When I consider how my life is spent
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent”
Unlike a classic Italian sonnet, this poem does not divide cleanly into eight lines and six lines. However, the first section of the poem consists of the poet trying to frame his question, and the second consists of the response to the question by "patience." The confusion makes perfect sense, as it conveys the awkwardness of someone (patience) interrupting someone else (the speaker) before the speaker can say something stupid.
The meter of the poem is classic iambic pentameter, with five iambs (an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable). The pattern itself is clear;
1 2 3 4 5
"Doth God | ex-act |day-la-| bor, light | de-nied?"
This sonnet sounds like a walk on an eggshell (slightly evasive sound). The speaker buries the climax of the first part of the poem; the question of whether God demands day-labour, light denied inside all these other expressions of why light is so important to him. The decision to question God's judgment is not to be taken lightly. However, the speaker is cautious when he is about to talk with God. He is so cautious that he says, "I fondly ask" after he asks the question, which serves to take the sting of arrogance and insubordination out of it.
Unlike the speaker, "Patience," is more direct. It uses shorter, more declarative sentences like, "His state is kingly." Both the speaker and "patience" use frequent enjambment, where one lines carries over into the next one without a pause because they are making complex arguments. This gives the poem a prose-like and slightly evasive sound. The final line of the poem does not carry over from the previous line and sounds remarkably straightforward: "They also serve who only stand and wait."