Thursday, October 13, 2016

On His Blindness

John Milton

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
Lodg’d 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.”

Why is so much poetry so convoluted, so awkward, so uncomfortable? Where grammatical and syntactical expectation require prose to flow fluidly and balk at misconstructions, the little box of rhyme into which so much verse is force leads to these convolutions. Paraphrased into prose this might have been written:

When I consider how my light is spent, ere half my days in this dark world and wide have passed; when I consider that my one talent, which is death to hide, is lodged with me uselessly – though my soul could not be more bent to serve therewith my Maker, and desirous to present my true account, lest he, returning, chide: “doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” When I consider this, I also fondly ask...

But even attempting the paraphrase makes it clear that Milton is trying to compress too many thoughts, too many ideas, into a single sentence. The opening conceit leads to a parenthesis; the reiteration of the opening conceit leads to a second parenthesis, and that in turn to a digression which generates a second conceit, itself leading to a further parenthesis, and that parenthesis to a further parenthesis. Until we realise that the poet has lost his way (as blind men do, of course, but that would be far too subtle an explanation of this poem), and the phrase “I fondly ask” stands out alone, unrelated to any of the previous. Yet apparently central. Or is simply that he needed four more syllables, and these occurred to him as satisfactory?

And is it, then, simply, a very bad poem? One which has endured because of the poet’s name, his reputation, and in spite of his failure on this occasion? When we consider the canon of European art and literature and music, it is the case that vast amounts of second-rate work continue to be performed, published, exhibited, anthologised, simply because they belong to the oeuvre of an artist whom we regard as great, and we too humble, or too lazy, or too lacking in fastidiousness, to separate the good wheat from the chaff. In truth, half the European canon should be dumped, and the space filled up with truly great works that have been forgotten, simply because that artist produced nothing else. In the case of this poem, it isn’t even Milton’s reputation that has caused it to endure, but a simple cliché that has entered the vernacular, a lame and insipid cliché at that, one that should also have been forgotten: “they also serve who only stand and wait”. In most of our experience, the cliché isn’t even true.

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