John Milton, a poet who was completely blind in 1651 wrote “Sonnet XIX” in 1652; this sonnet is his response to his loss of sight. The theme of the sonnet is the loss and regain of primacy of experience. Milton offers his philosophical view on animism and God. Furthermore, “Sonnet XIX” explores Milton’s faith and relationship with God.
“Sonnet XIX” suggests that man was created to work and not rest. The supportive details, structure, form, and richness of context embodies the theme. The sonnet goes through two phases: the first phase is Milton’s question addressed to God, “Why me?” he asked. Then, the second phase offers a resolution to Milton’s dilemma. Moreover, the sonnet acts as a self-poem to Milton, himself.
At the beginning of the sonnet, Milton suggests that his primacy of experience has been deferred when he became blind. The words, “dark”, “death”, and “useless” (lines 2-4) describe the emotional state of Milton. His blindness created a shrouded clarity within his mind. Line three, “And that one talent which is death to hide” is an allusion to the biblical context of the bible.
Line three refers to the story of Matthew XXV, 14-30 where a servant of the lord buried his single talent instead of investing it. At the lord’s return, he cast the servant into the “outer darkness” and deprived all he had. Hence, Milton devoted his life to writing; however, his blindness raped his God’s gift away. A tremendous cloud was cast over him and darkened his reality of life and the world. Like the servant, Milton was flung into the darkness.
Line seven, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” describes the limitations and burdens of a person who has lost his sense of place in life. Obviously, Milton is making a reference to his blindness in relation to line seven. Line seven implies that once the usefulness of a man has diminished, then is man doomed to wasting the rest of his remaining days.
In other words, has Milton’s handicap made him into an obsolete machine? The quote “To be or not to be,…”, (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene1) runs through Milton’s mind. Shall he struggle and fight in the webs of darkness, or shall he accept defeat? A sense of “dark clarity” – a sinister paradox occupies Milton’s mind. His brain was once clear, set, and on task; but now, it is clouded, unorganized, and fragmented.
However, in the darkness, a new form of clarity arises. “That murmur. Soon replies, God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts;” (lines 9-10) suggests that the willingness to try is good enough to satisfy God. Milton’s realization of the needs of God from man bought him to higher enlightenment. Therefore, the “dark clarity” renewed Milton’s primacy of experience. Like, Kenneth Rexroth, Milton broke away from the “beaten path” and chose his own.
Perhaps, the struggle within the darkness guides the truth out of the abyss. For example, if a person listens to Bach or Mozart, the musical experience is different when the listener’s eyes are closed. When the outer eye is shut from the physical world, then the inner eye (the mind) works in the dark.
In the darkness, the seeds of imagination grow; therefore, the seeds give the listener a new experience. Again, the primacy of experience is found within the dark. Hence, the mind’s eyes see a whole new world differently than the world we live in. If the truth shall set a person free, therefore truth is derived from the fundamentals of darkness.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world…stimulating progress, or giving birth to evolution.” In other words, imagination is the fundamental of darkness. In the mind’s eyes, a sense of truth rises from the inky and bottomless pool.
Therefore, the pool is the redemption of Milton’s soul. There is a coexistence between light and dark. Line fourteen, “They also serve who stand and wait.” implies that the people who are patient, focused, and determined will be able to see the light. The word “they” is referred to the virtues of truth.
“Sonnet XIX” contains the following characteristics: it is unique in style, rich in context, and carries a melodic mood and tone. The style of the sonnet was derived from the Baroque Period. The elements of written work during the Baroque period consisted of sharp contrast, biblical context, and change in mood.
Furthermore, the Baroque style has a strong emphasis on creating balance. Throughout Milton’s sonnet, there were many contrasts made between light and dark. The usage of “light” and “dark” creates a sense of balance in the sonnet. Paired words such as: “light” and “dark”, “death” and “soul”, “useless” and “work”, “denied” and “serve” are antonyms of each other. These words create an atmosphere of mood and balance.
“Sonnet XIX” is written in Petrachan form. Milton’s choice of form and pattern of end rhymes intensifies the depth and insight of the sonnet. The structure of the end rhyme consists of two forms. From lines one to eight, the end rhyme pattern is abba…abba. The last six lines end with an end rhyme pattern of abc…abc. The effectiveness of the sonnet is enhanced by the melodic sentence structure of each line. The alternating pattern of end rhymes provides a dramatic mood and tone to the sonnet.
Milton’s sonnet is an example of exploring human behavior and the unfamiliar to understand the rational world. Milton suggests that God’s satisfaction is to see a man at work and not his accomplishments. From lines, one to eight, the tone of Milton’s emotions was dark and expressed anthropocentric feelings. Essentially, Milton’s state of mind was confused and bitterly anguished over his blindness. In line four, Milton describes his soul bent out of the physical world. He believed that without exercising his gift, he would be doomed till the day of his death. He sits in darkness.
However, in the darkness, Milton came to understand that God does not need him to exercise the gift. From Voltaire’s short story, “Candide” Pangloss said, “for man was put in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, to work; which proves that man was not born for rest.” In other words, the work and effort are more important than the gift from God. Like Candide, Milton suffered and endured his own hardships and struggles before he realized his place in life. In conclusion, Milton learned to cultivate his garden as to parent to his child.
i would like to cite the author of this “essay” in a research project i’m doing is there any way that i would learn his/her name? just for proper citation
[…] I made time to visit Tranquility Park this evening at about 10:30 PM. It’s amazing to me how inspired I feel by very little visible activity. It reminded me of the famous quote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” ~ John Milton (1608 – 1674) from Sonnet XIX. […]
I am currently studying this poem and found your notes very helpful ! this is one of the few websites that actually gives notes and insights, thank you for that!