OUT OF SIGHT: RESPONSE TO MILTON'S SONNET 16 (ON HIS BLINDNESS)
My take on John Milton's Sonnet 16 (aka Sonnet 19 aka "On His Blindness") is that it should not be looked at solely as an exploration of blindness. Essentially, the poem speaks to me about contemplative spirituality and acceptance of one's place in the world. Blindness may or may not be one way that the poem enters that conversation.
A visually impaired writer myself, sometimes I write explicitly about my disability, sometimes I refer to it only indirectly. In the past, I was afraid to see myself as disabled because I believed that disabled was synonymous with inferior. I no longer think that way, but I also recognize many identities in myself—poet, male, white, heterosexual, cheesy horror movie fan, etc. Part of accepting my disability was looking beyond it.
Do we need the title "On His Blindness"? It sets up the reductive equation between sight and value that seems to unfold in the first half of the poem. "On His Blindness" was added a hundred years after Milton's death by Bishop Thomas Newton, who published extensive annotations of Milton's poetical works.1 Originally, Milton labeled it Sonnet XVI. 2
If the first line suggests blindness, I did not find the rest of the poem easy to decipher. Going by the idea that blindness has made his talent—presumably writing—useless, the narrator verges near self-pity with the question, "Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd?" The end seems to dispel such an idea for a more positive take on being blind, but I was suspicious. "They also serve who only stand and wait." Is that saying that even though you're blind and useless, God loves you anyway? Appeared like dim consolation to me, and a sad idea of God.
When I was younger, I thought of myself as a burden. A devout Christian at the time, I prayed for God to allow me to be more useful to Him and to others. It seemed like it took me longer to do everything than other people, from shaving to using a broom. Once I graduated college, I went from one low-pay, part-time job to the next. Dating was still a few years away.
At the age of 34, I have come a long way, though I still relate to Milton's concerns. In graduate school, I am ten years older than many of my classmates. It's taken me longer to read, to write, to learn, to even master some daily living tasks. To simply navigate a world geared for the sighted. If I say such things, I risk self-pity. Or worse. Am I blaming my visual impairment? Am I saying blind people can't achieve? Is that how Milton felt at the time he wrote Sonnet 16?
To Milton's credit, he radically reimagines values of productivity—one is not judged by human standards. I dig that idea. Be cool with who you are, because God is. It also reverses the trope of disabled people as "afflicted," for it proposes that disability is not a sign of divine disfavor. God doesn't need you to prove anything to Him. According to biographer Barbara Lewalski, the end of the poem even claims that being able to wait is the proper way to be receptive to God's presence. 3 Sonnet 16 was written in 1652. 4 It would not be until 1667 that Milton published his planned epic poem Paradise Lost, and his other major works followed. He was vindicated: standing and waiting came to be the germination period of his greatest writing.
I've tried to follow Milton's example and not measure myself by other people's actions or achievements. I know people my own age who have less security or happiness in their lives. My younger self would be amazed that I am in a highly-ranked graduate program, that I receive positive feedback on my work, and that I have meaningful relationships. These things came about after I reevaluated myself and the world around me. Were my difficulties the result of my own failings, or were there social factors—like signs written in small print, mobility based on personal vehicles rather than mass transportation, the stigma against conditions like blindness—that affected me?
The biblical allusion to the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 unlocks the sonnet's meaning. 5 In biblical usage, "talent" is a large unit of currency, and Milton uses that to play off the more modern meaning of a skill or ability. Once I saw that, a whole new vista of pecuniary slants to the poetic landscape came into view for me: "spent," "account," "day-labour."
Despite the centrality of the economic language, the poem's conclusion undercuts a literal reading of the parable, which may have inspired the prosperity gospel. In the parable, a lord entrusts three servants with parts of his estate when he travels. Upon his return, two of the servants present their lord with profits made from investing the money. The third, fearful of his master's reaction if the money were to be lost, hides the money and so can only present the original sum. His master rebukes him for his sloth, and even condemns him to Hell! This is the “one talent which is death to hide.”
Is Milton then worrying that his blindness makes him less profitable? The more essential point is the mindset behind such anxiety. R. F. Hall proposes that the poem is not so much a self-reflection as it is a moral lesson, with the speaker moving from personal examination to a universal discussion of patience. 6 Sonnet 16 rebuffs the speaker's worries by rejecting his misinterpretation of the Parable of the Talents, based as it is on pride and worldliness. To best serve God is not to be rich or exalted, but to be spiritually attuned and confident that God has a role for you.
If there is a Higher Power, I believe It wants diversity in Its creation. Visual impairment informs who I am, but it does not define who I am. Recognizing the prejudice and visual emphasis built into our culture is important, yet I do not have to let that make me despair. Milton is correct to exhort his readers to embrace patience. Blind and visually impaired people certainly need it. Taking longer to plan or do tasks is just something that most of us have to live with. Technology can offset that to a certain degree, but, thanks to my magnification software, my computer lags constantly. While writing this piece, I yelled at my laptop as I tried to scroll through the Wikipedia John Milton article.
More to the point, though, our whole society needs it, especially now in the age of smartphones, globalization, and the reign of instant gratification. We also have demanding standards of timeliness and productivity, valuing quantity over quality. Margaret Price has written about this in Mad at School, in which she rethinks some of the core values of academia, like quick thinking and cohesive, linear writing, that may prove problematic for people with mental disabilities. Perhaps we need to be more contemplative and Zen, like Milton. (Yes, that was a joke.)
On the other hand, I feel like Sonnet 16 curtails any sort of legitimate criticism of oppressive and painful circumstances. It's God's answer to Job, which I never found very satisfying. On the third hand, because this poem relies heavily on layers of meaning, I think that our responses to the poem reveal more about our own attitudes toward blindness and disability than the poem's. That wasn't Milton's sole focus. I think he reached for something higher, out of sight.
1. I am indebted to the academic editorial team at Shmoop for this revelation, and a number of the
linguistic notes and biblical allusions in the poem. Shmoop Editorial Team. "When I Consider How My Light
Is Spent (On His Blindness)." Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.