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 curlicues and hyphenations. Paraphrased into prose this might have been written:
When I consider how my light is spent, before half my days in this dark, wide world have passed; when I consider that my one talent, which it would be akin to death to hide, is lodged with me uselessly – though my soul could not be more bent to serve my Maker with it, 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 what is almost a footnote to a piece of marginalia. 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 it 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, and this simply because the artist who had that one moment of genius also produced nothing else of any merit in his life. 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, especially in restaurants.
But still this poem has endured, and if I had nothing but these negatives to say about it, why would I include it in a blog-anthology of my "favourite poetry and prose"?
In the beginning, St John of Patmos tells us at the start of his account of the life of Jesus, in the beginning was the Word. He isn't actually correct. For there to be a word there first have to be the letters that make the word, and also the idea that requires a word in order to express it, hopefully articulately, though most often the words are ambivalent, if not ambiguous, and the ideas, usually borrowed anagrammtrically from someone else, are not quite as fully developed or elaborated as in the moment of our aspiration (that's inspiration with a more correct first-letter a). So Samuel Beckett infers, in almost any line of his you choose to choose, that in the beginning was the stammer, and the stutter, and the incoherence, and quite probably the crossed-out-and-replaced, the thrown-in-the-garbage, the abandoned-and-resumed, and the sheer fluke that this time it came out perfect.
So we - what is the word I'm looking for? - so we, fumble, stumble, grope, no, not grope, I think fumble is as near as I can get, so we fumble (do I need the "about"? it's unwieldy) - so we fumble in the darkness like a, like a man gone blind, desperately trying not to surrender to the despair induced by blindness "Ere half my days in this dark world and wide"... and wait, isn't that a kind of anagram of Dante's opening to "The Inferno", "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... at the mid-point of our life", and doesn't Eliot cento that same line in the "East Coker" fragment of "Four Quartets", and is it just coincidence that when he centos the Dante, he also takes up the very theme that Milton is alluding to...
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious...
"By men whom one cannot hope to emulate" indeed! Dante, Eliot, Milton. And if there is blind Milton to allude to, is there not also blind Borges, engaged in the same struggle, which ultimately is not the struggle of blindness anyway, but the struggle of lucidity in any form?
Which leaves one final question. If Milton is resigned, as that closing cliché seems to indicate, to a life in which the writing of poetry is no longer available to him because of his blindness, if there is nothing left for him to do but "stand and wait", whether for the invention of the digital voice-recorder or the development of ocular surgery, if this is the case, how is it that he managed to overcome these obstacles, and write this poem?
The illustration at the top of the page shows "Milton" by the Hungarian Mihály Munkácsy ( 1844-1900), in the New York Public Library.
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