When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

2356 words - 9 pages

John Milton’s Sonnet XIX, known as “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” is a poem considering one’s disabling affliction in light of a time-less truth that the Apostle Paul wrote of: all things work to the good who love God and one thereby learns to be content in all things. Milton’s disabling affliction was blindness and by most interpretative accounts he was blind when he wrote Sonnet XIX. Under God’s providence Milton “considers” his dark infirmity and writes (dictates?) in light thereof. In this darkness and in this light I will consider Milton’s Sonnet.
First to consider is that the poem used in The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an edited version from The Complete Poetry and Major Prose of Milton, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. The poem that will be considered here is the 1673 text printed in The Riverside Milton, edited by Roy Flannagan. The decision of Riverside was not to intervene into the text, but to leave as it was written. Hughes’ changes insert punctuation, capitalization and spelling to update it to a modern audience. By modernizing the poem Hughes has effectively changed the meaning to what he as the editor had in mind. Milton wanted good readers, readers that read deeper than surface meanings and by changing the text the art of Milton’s words are compromised for the poem was designed to confuse the reader. Milton as a wordsmith is preparing the reader for a spiritual confusion that leads one to a question. Hughes’ editing reinforces the binary aspects of the poem that sets up one speaker in the octave and one speaker in the sestet, the problem in the octave then the solution in the sestet, if one likes. If one leaves out the editorial changes, the octave speaker and the sestet speaker become erased and an internal dialogue manifests itself in the spiritual sense.
The poem as stated before is designed to confuse, but offers spiritual enlightenment and this can only be if the text is left alone. The analyzing or interpreting of the poem thus becomes spiritual only by the original text not in simplifying the text. Thomas Stroup writes that the poem “is a spiritual exercise, an interior drama, an examination of conscience, a contemplating and a consideration (Stroup 245). The poem is an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet built on balance and contrast, by which the octave or first eight lines propose a problem, doubt, or conflict that raises a question. In the last six lines or sestet the problem is solved the doubt and conflict settled, and the question answered. Milton’s “Sonnet XIX” is a balancing of polar opposites contrasting with subtle allusions to the spirit world that makes the poem problematic for one’s consideration. The mood of the first eight lines is of dejection and the last six lines of cessation. The poem’s sense of service to God in the octave and submission in the sestet, and the contrasting self-centered view in the first eight lines that pushes out toward the glory of God in the last six lines. Where...

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