John Milton was a Puritan -- i.e. a strict English Calvinist -- who recognised that he had an
amazing ability to write poetry. When, however, he developed glaucoma and went blind while
his poetic ability had still not been fully explored, he worried that God himself would hold it
against him and punish him for not using his poetic talent.
This was reference to a New Testament story where Jesus told of how a wealthy man had given
three people certain amounts of money -- a talent was a coin used in Israel. One man buried
his talent instead of using it to earn yet more money, and he was later punished for doing so.
Milton equated his poetic ability with such a talent which was being buried because he was now
blind and could therefore no longer write. As a Puritan, he expected his God to punish him --
even though it was not his own fault that he was now blind.
ABOUT THE POET
John Milton was born in London in 1608. He was of a wealthy family, his father probably being
a merchant and shipping magnate. The son was therefore raised as a puritan, which was fairly
typical of the urban bourgeoisie of the time.
It seems that Milton believed himself predestined for greatness. He attended Cambridge
University, after which he continued his studies privately. In the end, he became the best
educated poet in the English language, being able to write not only in English but also in Italian
Milton spent most of his early life in the service of the puritan movement which, under the
leadership of Oliver Cromwell, overthrew the monarchy in 1649 and established an autocratic
republic in its place.
When, however, the English grew tired of puritan control and in 1660 re-established the
monarchy, Milton found himself in a precarious position because all the leaders of the revolution
were summarily executed. The poet was lucky that his standing in the community saved him
and he was allowed to retire quietly -- but he nevertheless lost everything including his personal
By about 1650, shortly after the puritans had overthrown the monarchy, Milton developed
glaucoma which led to his blindness. This had a devastating impact upon him because he had
not yet achieved the greatness which he had predicted for himself.
His strongly puritan sentiment made him question whether God would punish him for his
inability to develop his poetic talent. It was in this context that he wrote his most famous
sonnet, "On his blindness" in about 1655.
His distress was exacerbated, however, by the fact that many influential people, including some
of his friends, were claiming that his blindness was actually caused by God himself as a
punishment for the poet's allying himself with Cromwell. It was believed that the monarchy was
of divine origin and that rebellion against the king was therefore rebellion against God himself.
The glaucoma, however, did not end Milton's poetic career. He dictated "On his
blindness" to his daughter and continued to dictate his further works, either to his daughter
or to hired secretaries. Indeed, his greatest works -- "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise
Regained" -- were dictated during these years of blindness.
Milton married a teenager, Mary Powell, and with her fathered four children. Their marriage,
however, lasted only ten years before his wife died while giving birth, an event which affected
the poet deeply. He later married Katherine Woodcock who too would die during childbirth and
within only two years of their marriage. His third wife, Elizabeth Munshull, would survive him.
John Milton himself died of gout in 1674. He was then 66 years of age.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:
What is the theme of the Octave? What is the theme of the Sestet? (4)
How does the sestet differ remarkably from the octave? (Hint: you could count how many
times the poet uses the personal pronoun "I" or "my" or "me" in
Milton must have known that his life was actually more than half-spent. What then does he
mean when he says that he has become blind "e're half my days"? (4)
It has been said that Milton over-exaggerates his blindness.
- Is this true? Substantiate your answer with clear references to the text. (6)
Milton -- a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan -- sees the world as being an essentially evil place.
- Explain how he portrays this notion in his choice of words, "in this dark world and
Comment on the image which the poet portrays in the words, "though my Soul more bent
to serve . . . my maker." (6)
Is Milton arguing with God in the Octave? (4)
Why is it that "Patience" answers the poet in the Sestet, and not God himself? (4)
"God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts."
- The answer that Patience gives is actually typical of a contemporary Puritan or Calvinist
attitude to religion. Can you explain why this is so? (4)
"Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite."
- It would appear that Milton is using a shipping image here, an image remembered from his
youth when he would have observed his father at work as a shipping magnate. Can you explain
how this is so? (4)
Milton uses two stories from the New Testament to substantiate both his fears and his relief.
The first, found in the Octave, causes him anguish while the second, found in the Sestet, leads
to his profound sense of comfort.
- Can you find these two stories? (4)
- Is Milton's presentation of these stories accurate? (4)
What words BEST describe the tone of this sonnet? (2)