A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Milton

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-labor, 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."
--John Milton

Sonnets are easy to write, hard to write well. The easy part is that the rhyme draws you on, spurs the mind toward the goal of finding that echoing word. The hard part is that you can easily lose the sense in search of the sound. Milton, of course, never wrote a word of nonsense in his life -- unless you regard his theology as nonsense, which is another issue entirely. His use here of the Italian sonnet form saves him from the trap that even Shakespeare fell into: contradicting the entire drift of the sonnet in one swift couplet. Some of the strength of this sonnet, sometimes titled "On His Blindness," lies in Milton's skillful use of enjambment, which keeps the flow of thought moving past the rhyme, as in
                                               though my soul more bent 
To serve therewith my Maker, 
where an end-line pause on "bent" suggests one meaning for the word, i.e., "curved or crooked" (perhaps under the weight of his disability), while the enjambment leads on to another meaning, "strongly inclined or determined." In fact, the poem is a model of all sorts of poetic and rhetorical tricks.