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7. Milton's Blindness, Essay Two
More Thoughts on Blindness and Faith
In his 1652 poem, when Milton is even closer than in 1654 to the actual loss of sight, he was vexed by the loss of his talent (i.e., eyesight) in mid-life. He raised the "fond" (i.e., foolish) question: "Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd?" That is, can God expect me to do anything, now that I am blind? But then he receives a reply,
" "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best; his State
Is Kingly. . ."
A profound realization has come over Milton. His blindness teaches him that God really doesn't need him, doesn't need his talent, however great. This scintillating thought, I believe, forms the basis of the rather childlike and trusting optimism of the 1654 letter. Since God is in charge of the world, and He brings on His servants various kinds of "milde" afflictions, God must still be honored. God doesn't need any of our efforts to make God look good. Perhaps this realization liberated him in other ways, too. By "giving up," as it were, this most precious gift back to the sturdy and loving hands of God, it was as if Milton was able to receive back what he had offered up. He received back, as he would later pray, insight to "see and tell/ Of things invisible to mortal sight," PL III.54-55.
Rather than looking at his loss as debilitating, he looked at it as "milde." In the 1652 poem, one can readily see that Milton has little clue about where life would lead him now that he is blind. Others are speeding across land and ocean without rest. But God is equally pleased with those "who only stand and waite." Maybe, he thought, he would be one who stands and waits. But by 1654, he had changed his attitude a bit. He saw himself as rather blessed to have the disability come on him when it did, and he now interprets his loss in a deep theological and biblical way. Darkness comes to all. His came to him while he was able to bear it. His darkness makes him more docile to be led by the hand of God.
Coming to Fruition in PL
PL was still in Milton's future when he wrote these two pieces even though, as Prof. Barbara Lewalski points out in her biography of Milton (The Life of John Milton, 2000), he had been thinking of such a Christian epic since the 1640s and had probably finished half of the work by 1660 (a ten-book version of it was published in 1667; the twelve-book version, with which we are most familiar, came out a few years later). In her chapter on "Higher Argument: Completing and Publishing PL" (pp. 442-488), she mentions the frustration Milton often encountered in writing PL. He had to use amanuenses (scribes) and many of these were either partially or fully unacquainted with the worlds that were second-nature to Milton. Sometimes he had to even spell out the words for them.
But his noctural lucubrations, so common to him since age 12, provided the time for greatest creative activity. He often would compose, in his head, twenty to forty lines in a night and then recite them, sometimes even in a torrent, to the willing scribe the next morning. One amanuensis says this of Milton:
"The time friendly to the Muses fell to his poetry; And hee waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good Stock of Verses ready againt his Amanuensis came; which if it happened to be later than ordinary, hee would complain, Saying, hee wanted to be milk'd," quoted in Lewalski, p. 448.
One unusual thing about Milton's creative effort was that it seemed to happen only between the Fall and Spring equinoxes. The warmer temperatures either cooled the creative juices or gave him time to replenish his supply of thoughts.
His most clear reference to his blindness in PL comes in the long hymn to Light which begins Book III. By this time the blindness has not simply been accepted as a "milde yoak" or even embraced as a sign of God's merciful dealing with him; now it is an occasion for him to rekindle his love and ambition (III.21-29):
"thee (Light) I revisit safe
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil'd. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Clear Spring, or shady Grove, or Sunny Hill
Smit with the love of sacred Song."
He is still in love with learning, classical and biblical. Nightly he drinks deeply from the fountain of inspiration. He yearns for more (III.34-36):
"So were I equalle'd with them (other famous blind men) in renown,/ Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides,/ And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old."
But how can he hope that his life would manifest this kind of productivity and that his ambition, which never waned, would be slaked? Only because he was confident that his blindness unleased a spiritual sight and made him able to see and tell of things that others, who had eyes, couldn't really see. Though he was presented with a "Universal blanc," he was stimulated to pray (III.51-55):
" "So much the rather though Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight."
I would say that his prayer was answered. His blindness was no obstacle, in the end. God continued to lead him by the hand, as Milton was confident He would. And we are the richer for it. May we have our spiritual and intellectual senses charged as we read PL, and may our ambitions be to internalize and vitalize the traditions that made Milton also great.
Those are some of the lessons to me of Milton's blindness. How can we complain, then, with our "milde yoaks," seeing that we are afflicted less severely than was Milton, that we have greater access to information and technology, have lights that shine in the evening and machines that can record every one of our thoughts or words? He humbles us as he teaches us. And, not least, he fuels my desire even more to make PL my own.