JOHN MILTON: ON HIS BLINDNESS AND HIS CONCEPT OF SERVICE
Although it is Paradise Lost that receives much of the attention from scholars of John Milton, his most often quoted words may well be the last line of his Sonnet XIX, When I consider how my light is spent. That last line is, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The key to understanding the essence of the sonnet is to understand the contentious issue of salvation that divides the Roman Catholic Church from those who “protest” against the church and argue for reform, from the followers of Martin Luther in the 16th century to the Puritans of Milton’s 17th century. This study samples the literature addressing Milton and his life and times, as well as critical comment on the sonnet, but it goes deeper, using close reading of the sonnet itself. The issue in contention is whether, as Catholic church doctrine maintains, “good works” are sufficient for salvation, or, as Luther claims, justification is by faith alone. What we find in Milton is something new, which is that faith is primary, but that the faithful will perform good works as a matter of obedience to God’s commands. When Milton loses his physical sight, he gains spiritual light, which he expresses in the sonnet. His use of the Parable of the Talents raises the question of whether being blind is an excuse for not using his talent as a writer to praise God. The last line of the sonnet answers that question.