John Milton's Sonnet 16
In his sonnets, John Milton tackles a number of subjects which he addresses at considerably greater length in his other poetry and prose. These subjects range from religious to political, and rarely is any one piece of writing limited to one or the other of those fields. While his Sonnet 16 begins with a challenge to familiar biblical passages, Milton ultimately uses it to offer a critique of the nearly ubiquitous comparison between the king and God.
The sonnet features two motifs that run throughout the first seven lines. Both are biblical, and both are introduced in the first line. The one that seems to be the most significant is the light and dark imagery. In the first line, it sounds like a reference to Milton’s blindness (this is more or less plausible depending on which date of publication you accept). As this language continues to crop up, it appears that Milton’s darkness has a larger importance. In the second line, he refers to the world as dark, and in line seven, he uses the lack of light to pose a frustrated question to God. By using this vocabulary to describe his fears, Milton creates a connection with two passages from the Bible that use the same language to explain the will of God and the way of the world. In Matthew 25: 1-13, a brightly shining lantern symbolizes a person’s preparedness for God’s coming, and in John 9:4, Christ refers to the limited time he (and every man) has to do God’s work on earth before “the night cometh, when no man can work” (King James Bible). Milton engages with these passages, so that when he reaches the height of his dilemma, “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,/I fondly ask” he is issuing a direct challenge to a statement made by Christ (line 7-8). This is, essentially, an accusation leveled at God: even Christ was not expected to accomplish anything once the light had gone from the world, so in this “dark world and wide” it is wholly unreasonable to expect anything from the poet (2). This defensive blasphemy is further explained when the other biblical motif is examined.
Milton seems to have a strange relationship with the parable of the talents. While he uses it in his writing more than once, he does not relate to it in the same way many of his contemporaries did. It is not, for him, a simple justification of usury; it is a call to Christian action that in this case seems to overwhelm him. His poem is scattered with the language of economics: his light is “spent”, he must present a “true account”, and he refers to following his vocation as “day-labour” (1, 6, 7). This, of course, fits with the double meaning of “talent”, which he uses in line 3 to cement the ties of the poem to both the Bible and the marketplace. Milton emphasizes the base, worldly aspect of this parable in order to defend his own difficulties with it. His light is spent before he has had a chance to put his talent to use, he hasn’t been given a fair shot,...