A Prose Analysis on Milton's "Sonnet XIX"
John Milton, a poet who was completely blind in 1651 wrote "Sonnet XIX"
in 1652; this sonnet is his response to his loss of sight. The theme of the
sonnet is the loss and regain of primacy of experience. Milton offers his
philosophical view on animism and God. Furthermore, "Sonnet XIX" explores
Milton's faith and relationship with God. "Sonnet XIX" suggests that man was
created to work and not rest. The supportive details, structure, form, and
richness of context embodies the theme. The sonnet goes through two phases: the
first phase is Milton's question addressed to God, "Why me?" he asked. Then,
the second phase offers a resolution to Milton's dilemma. Moreover, the sonnet
acts as a self-poem to Milton, himself.
In the beginning of the sonnet, Milton suggests that his primacy of
experience have been deferred when he became blind. The words, "dark", "death",
and "useless" (lines 2-4) describe the emotional state of Milton. His blindness
created a shrouded clarity within his mind. Line three, "And that one talent
which is death to hide" is an allusion to the biblical context of the bible.
Line three refers to the story of Matthew XXV, 14-30 where a servant of the lord
buried his single talent instead of investing it. At the lord's return, he cast
the servant into the "outer darkness" and deprived all he had. Hence, Milton
devoted his life in writing; however, his blindness raped his God's gift away.
A tremendous cloud casted over him and darkened his reality of life and the
world. Like the servant, Milton was flung into the darkness.
Line seven, "Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?" describes the
limitations and burdens of a person who has lost his sense of place in life.
Obviously, Milton is making a reference to his blindness in relation to line
seven. Line seven implies that once the usefulness of a man has diminished,
then is man doomed to wasting the rest of his remaining days. In other words,
has Milton's handicap made him into an obsolete machine? The quote "To be or
not to be,...", (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene1) runs through Milton's mind. Shall he
struggle and fight in the webs of darkness, or shall he accept defeat. A sense
of "dark clarity" - a sinister paradox occupies Milton's mind. His brain was
once clear, set, and on task; but now, it is clouded, unorganized, and
However, in the darkness, a new form of clarity arises. "That murmur.
Soon replies, God doth not need Either man's work or his own gifts;" (lines 9-
10) suggests that the willingness to try is good enough to satisfy God.
Milton's realization of the needs of God from man bought him to a higher
enlightenment. Therefore, the "dark clarity" renewed Milton's primacy of
experience. Like, Kenneth Rexroth, Milton broke away from the "beaten path" and
chose his own.
Perhaps, the struggle within the darkness guides the truth out of the
abyss. For example, if a person listens to Bach or Mozart, the musical
experience is different when the listener's eyes are closed. When the outer eye
is shut from the physical world, then the inner eye (the mind) works in the dark.
In the darkness, the seeds of imagination grow; therefore, the seeds give the
listener a new experience. Again, the primacy of experience is found within the
dark. Hence, the mind's eyes see a whole new world differently than the world
we live. If the truth shall set a person free, therefore truth is derived from
the fundamentals of darkness.
Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge, for
knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world...stimulating
progress, or giving birth to evolution." In other words, imagination is the
fundamental of darkness. In the mind's eyes, a sense of truth rises from the
inky and bottomless pool. Therefore, the pool is the redemption of Milton's
soul. There is a coexistence between light and dark. Line fourteen, "They also
serve who stand and wait." implies that the people who are patient, focused, and
determined will be able to see the light. The word "they" is referred to the
virtues of truth.
"Sonnet XIX" contains the following characteristics: it is unique in
style, rich in context, and carries a melodic mood and tone. The style of the
sonnet was derived from the Baroque Period. The elements of written work during
the Baroque period consisted of sharp contrast, biblical context, and change in
mood. Furthermore, the Baroque style has a strong emphasis on creating balance.
Throughout Milton's sonnet, there were many contrasts made between light and
dark. The usage of "light" and "dark" creates a sense of balance in the sonnet.
Paired words such as: "light" and "dark", "death" and "soul", "useless" and
"work", "denied" and "serve" are antonyms of each other. These words create an
atmosphere of mood and balance.
"Sonnet XIX" is written in Petrachan form. Milton's choice of form and
pattern of end rimes intensifies the depth and insight of the sonnet. The
structure of the end rime consists of two forms. From lines one to eight, the
end rime pattern is abba...abba. The last six lines end with an end rime pattern
of abc...abc. The effectiveness of the sonnet is enhanced by the melodic sentence
structure of each line. The alternating pattern of end rimes provide a dramatic
mood and tone to the sonnet.
Milton's sonnet is an example of exploring human behavior and the
unfamiliar to understand the rational world. Milton suggests that God's
satisfaction is to see man at work and not his accomplishments. From lines one
to eight, the tone of Milton's emotions was dark and expressed anthropocentric
feelings. Essentially, Milton' s state of mind was confusion and bitterly
anguished over his blindness. On line four, Milton describes his soul bent out
of the physical world. He believed that without exercising his gift, he would
be doomed till the day of his death. He sits in darkness.
However in the darkness, Milton came to understand that God does not
need him to exercise the gift. From Voltaire's short story, "Candide" Pangloss
said, "for man was put in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum,
to work; which proves that man was not born for rest." In other words, the work
and effort is more important than the gift from God. Like Candide, Milton
suffered and endured his own hardships and struggles before he realized his
place in life. In conclusion, Milton learned to cultivate his garden as to
parent to his child.