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6. Milton's Blindness, First Essay
A 1652 Poem, a 1654 Letter and Paradise Lost
It is a commonplace when studying PL to observe that the poet was blind when he composed it. Yet much more needs to be understood about his blindness in order to appreciate the way it affected his work, his self-understanding, and his Christian faith. This and the next essay look at those topics.
The poignant and eloquent letter he sent to a Greek friend, Leonard Philaras, on September 28, 1654, gives us information about the etiology and nature of his blindness. Philaras had been a long-time fan of Milton's work, and when visiting London after Milton's blindness had fully set in (around 1652), led Milton around the city so that, in Milton's words, it "did not render me more conspicuous to any." Either at that time or shortly thereafter, Philaras mentioned an oculist acquaintance in Paris to Milton, a Dr. Thenevot, who wanted to be apprised of Milton's condition. The September 1654 letter is Milton's acquiescence in this request.
Milton describes the onset of his blindness in frank terms:
" I think it is about ten years (i.e., 1644) since I first perceived my sight to weaken and become dull: at the same time my spleen and bowels were disordered, and flatulent; as soon as I commenced reading in the morning, as usual, my eyes became very painful and seemed opposed to the employment; but after moderate exercise of the body, they recovered....," Milton's Familiar Letters, pp. 67-68.
Milton pointed out in an earlier work how he had been in the habit of studying until midnight since he was twelve; perhaps the flickering candlelight over many years was the ultimate cause of the onset of his blindness.
It didn't come all at once, nor was each eye equally affected at the same time. He mentions that the dimness first arose in the left side of his left eye; when he closed the right eye, it made images appear smaller. His other eye "has been gradually failing for the last three years." Does that mean that when he wrote his 1652 poem on blindness (see below) that he wasn't completely blind?
As the letter progresses, the brilliance of Milton's learning comes out, even when he is describing his debilitating affliction. He talks about how for some months, before he entirely lost his sight, "every object that I looked at steadily, seemed to swim to the right and the left." This reminded him of a classical description of Phineus, the blind prophet of Salmydessus in Apollonius of Rhodes' work Argonautica (II.203):
" Him vapors dark/ Enveloped, and the earth appeared to roll/ Beneath him, sinking in a lifeless trance."
Not only does Milton feel quite at home making classical references a part of his epistolary correspondence, but the experience of the blind Phineus stayed with him and was incorporated into Book III of PL. There, in his breathtaking hymn to Light, he talks about his blindness, and he speaks of his longing to be equal in renown to other famous blind people: Thamyris, Maeonides (Homer), Tiresias and Phineus (III.35-36). So, the swimming nature of the images before his eyes connected him not only to his beloved classical world, but fueled his ambition to aspire to as great heights as they reached, though blind.
Even as Milton is grateful for the proffered assistance of his Greek friend Philaras, he has "prepare[d] and compose[d] myself, under the consideration that I am certainly incurable." But then, thinking further on his condition (for Milton, above all, was a learner and thinker), he relates his condition to his Christian faith.
Blindness and Faith
How does one "handle" blindness, especially if one is a writer? There were no typewriters then, no braille alphabets or recording instruments to let him dictate his thoughts. His first few lines of his moving 1652 sonnet on his blindness recognizes his situation (lines 1-4):
"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..."
In the middle of his days, as it were, he faces this enormous debility. His lines are reminiscent of those of Dante who, in Canto 1 of the Inferno, spoke of being lost in the dark wood in the middle of his days. Milton was actually 43 or 44 when he wrote this poem, and he would, as it turned out, die within 22 years, but he is correct in thinking that 1/2 of his productive days still lay ahead of him. Thus, how do you deal with this kind of debility, so central to your identity as a person and writer?
There is no indication, either from the 1652 poem or 1654 letter or the 1667 Paradise Lost that he received this limitation as anything other than something that came to him from the permission of a merciful God. Let's look first at the letter. He begins by making reference to the Bible.
"And I often think, that since the days of darkness, to which every man is destined, are, as the wise man warns, many.."
He knows his Bible well; the reference is to Ecclesiastes 11:8, "Even those who live for many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many." Let's pause for a minute to reflect on the kind of knowledge that Milton displays here, its acquisition and its benefits. Milton has been called, by most, the greatest poet in the English language. His greatness derives, among other things, from the scope of his knowledge and the mastery of language(s). His mind is stored, as it were, with the most precise textual knowledge of the classical and Christian worlds; so deeply stored in fact, that he can live in an interior dialogue with these texts, drawing the living tissue of thought from them at will. And, not only does he draw from them; the texts stay with him and, as we have seen, become important not just in letter correspondence but also in his great work, PL. The best thing that educators can do for the young is to steep them, if the students show an inclination to it, in the dual worlds of the classical and the Biblical (or other religious traditions), so that the full scope of texts are immediately available to be used in poetic and prose works. Milton teaches us that study and mastery is essential to the person who would be a writer or a contributor to the intellectual life of the world.
After that "commercial" for mastery, let's return to his 1654 letter. He begins by recognizing the preponderating "darkness" of our days. But then, he says that his were attended with loads of good things:
" "mine, by the great mercy of Providence, happening in the midst of leisure, and studies, and the conversation and salutations of my friends, are much brighter than the shades of death."
He is grateful in the midst of blindness, since his darknes set in when he was compassed about by friends, by leisure and by learning. Since darkness comes to all, it is best if it can come when other life conditions are right, so that it is not perceived as an enemy.
But then he goes farther, in both his poem and letter. Since, as Jesus taught, man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted in Matthew 4:4),
"why should not any one submit for this reason also, that he can see not only with his eyes, but that the leading and providence of God is sufficient light."
In other words, his blindness provides the opportunity for him to explore and rely on the providence of God, to experience how God Himself is sufficient for him.
"Truly, if He take care of me--if He provide for me--which He does, and lead me by the hand, and accompany me through life, I shall willingly permit my eyes to be unemployed."
The bottom line, so to speak, is Milton's trust in God's providential care. God has and will lead him by the hand. God has brought this affliction on him when he was best able to bear it. We all face the darkness of our days. I will bless God, then, that in His mercy he brought it to me when I was able to bear it. Bless God that in the midst of it He leads me by the hand in life. One senses that blindness has been received by Milton not as a curse or even a debility, but as an occasion for him to trust the goodness of God yet further.
The next essay finishes these thoughts.