Dec. 9, 2007

On His Blindness

by John Milton

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "On His Blindness" by by John Milton. Public Domain. (buy now)

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
      Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
      And that one talent which is death to hide
      Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
      My true account, lest he returning chide,
      'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'
      I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: 'God doth not need
      Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
      Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
      And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
      They also serve who only stand and wait.'

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of John Milton, (books by this author) born in London (1608), who started writing poetry as a young man, but before his career as a poet could really take off, England began to fall into a civil war, the king was overthrown and a new form of government, known as the Commonwealth was established, led by Oliver Cromwell.

Milton responded to the situation by becoming a pamphleteer. Nobody really knew how the new government would work, and Milton became an advocate for greater civil rights and religious liberty. He wrote about expanding the right to divorce your spouse and he made one of the first comprehensive arguments for the freedom of the press. The Parliament had recently passed a law requiring government approval of all published books. Milton wrote, "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye."

Milton eventually took a job as a Latin secretary for the government, translating letters for international correspondence. He was struggling to raise his three daughters, and he was slowly going blind. Then, suddenly, the government he worked for fell apart, King Charles II was restored to the throne, and all the leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged. That summer, a warrant was issued for Milton's arrest, but he was kept in hiding by his friends. His pamphlets were publicly burned. He was eventually pardoned, but he became an outcast, and people said that God had struck him blind for his sins against the king.

Milton was devastated by the restoration of the monarchy, but without a job, he finally had time to devote to his poetry again. He'd long thought that there needed to be an epic poem in English, and he had originally thought it would be about England. But instead, he decided to write the poem about the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and humanity's fall from grace.

He composed the verses in his head, at night, and in the morning he would recite them to anyone near by that would take dictation. He originally called the poem "Adam Unparadised," but he changed the title to Paradise Lost. There was some question as to whether it would be approved for publication by the government, since Milton was such a notorious dissident, but it finally came out in 1667. It begins: "Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one greater Man / Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, / Sing Heav'nly Muse..."

When the poem appeared in print, Milton's contemporaries were astonished. People couldn't believe that a man generally thought of as a washed-up, outcast, political hack had written the greatest work of literature in a generation. The poet John Dryden wrote, "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too." Milton was 58 years old, and he'd finally become a respected poet.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »