Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent

Original Text: 
John Milton, Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Thomas Dring, 1673). Facs. edn. Complete Poetical Works reproduced in photographic facsimile, comp. by H. F. Fletcher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1943-48). PR 3551 F52 ROBA
4     Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
5To serve therewith my Maker, and present
6     My true account, lest he returning chide,
7     "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
9That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
10     Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
11     Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
12Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
13     And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
14     They also serve who only stand and wait."


1] 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. Back to Line
2] 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. Back to Line
3] 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. Back to Line
8] fondly: foolishly. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Hugh MacCallum; A. S. P. Woodhouse
RPO Edition: 
3RP 1.238.