JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
SONNET XIX: WHEN I CONSIDER HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT
an analysis: http://www.bol.ucla.edu/~happybut/milton.htm#analysislightspent
1When 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
4 Lodg'd with me useless,
though my soul more bent
5 To serve therewith my Maker, and present
6 My true account,
lest he returning chide,
7 "Doth God exact day-labour,
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
9 That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not
10 Either man's work or his own
gifts: who best
11 Bear his mild yoke, they serve
him best. His state
12 Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
13 And post o'er land and ocean
14 They also serve who only stand
The date of composition is uncertain, Milton's blindness, to which this
is the first reference in his poetry, became virtually complete in 1652,
but if the arrangement of his sonnets is (as it elsewhere appears to be)
chronological, the date must be, like that of Sonnet XVIII, 1655. First
printed in Poems, 1673.
light: power of vision, to be taken in conjunction with "this dark world.''
In a letter of 1654 Milton refers to a very faint susceptibility to light
still remaining to him.
Ere half my days: we must not expect mathematical accuracy. But if we remember
that Milton is speaking about his career in God's service, take its beginning
in the avowed dedication to that service in Sonnet VII (1632), and assume
the scriptural life-span of three score years and ten (which would mean
life till 1678), 1652 falls before, and even 1655 does not extend beyond,
the half-way mark of Milton's expected career of service.
The allusion is to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30); death,
like the outer darkness into which the unprofitable servant was cast, stands
for the utmost in punishment; the Talent was a measure of weight and hence
of value; there is here, of course, a play on the word in its modern sense
of mental gift or endowment, in Milton's case his gift of poetry.