Sunday, February 8, 2009

Event A: John Milton E-Variorum

John Milton E-Variorum:
“When I consider how my light is spent”

Welcome to Event A at the Appositions 2009 conference, where we invite your annotations, questions, comments, and collaborative postings on Milton’s sonnet, “When I consider how my light is spent.”

If you would like to participate in this E-Variorum, simply add your contribution here via the “post a comment” link at the bottom of this page.
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“When I consider how my light is spent,” Poems, &c. upon several occasions by Mr. John Milton; both English and Latin, &c.; composed at several times; with a small tractate of education to Mr. Hartlib (London: Printed for Tho. Dring, 1673), p. 59.

In Poems (1673) the text appears numbered as XVI; however, scholars customarily refer to this poem as sonnet XIX, which reflects a chronological placement within the complete arc of all of Milton’s sonnets.
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XVI.

When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re 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, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
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 milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.
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Source: Early English Books Online. Wing / 643:01. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. 165 pp.
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APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

3 comments:

Kathleen said...

I take away two points of comfort from this sonnet: 1. that "God's yoke is mild" and 2. that waiting may be the best way to serve God --even for a soul that is "bent to serve my maker."

I'm also struck by Milton's questioning tone (which is so different from Job's questioning tone) when he asks "Doth God exact day labour?" Finally, I'm struck by the concept of God's indifference as in, "he doth not need either man's work or his own gifts" - on one hand there is a sense of comfort offered, and on the other hand that comfort is denied.

Ian MacInnes said...

There's one word in Kathleen's comment which has always fascinated me, but first I have a quick question for other readers. Is it my imagination, or is there really no main verb of the first independent clause? It seems all adverbial to me.

Anyway, the word I am most interested in is "bent" in "though my Soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker." Based on what I've read, it's fairly unusual to find this past participle adjective applied to the soul in the period, although the noun form (the "bent" of the soul) is quite common. I think Milton's choice here may shape our reading of the poem's resolution. At the time "Bent" could simply mean naturally inclined, but it could also mean bound or forced or even humbled. The verb form is strongly associated with alteration or redirection (as Donne uses it so powerfully in his sonnet "Batter my heart" -- though there's an ambiguity in that poem too!). If Milton's "bent" means inclined, the phrase pulls against the growing crisis of the question at the end of the octave. It also seems both self-satisfied and defensive: "my Talent makes me more naturally inclined to serve God." If on the other hand, the word carries with it the sense of binding or twisting, then serving God is not the natural inclination of the soul. The use of the phrase "the bent of the soul" in other works supports this basic ambiguity. Sometimes the bent of the soul is toward God. Sometimes the bent of the soul is in the other direction and needs to be deliberately reversed. I think this ambiguity, coupled with the clear foreshadowing of the humility in the final lines, suggests that the speaker's real issue has to do with uncertainty about the true shape of his soul.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating close reading of 'bent'. I like it.

As for the grammar: how about -

When I consider... the talent... [to be] lodged useless, even though [I consider] my soul [to be] bent..."

In other words, you could take lines 3-6 as an "accusative plus participle" construction, a relative of the more common "accusative plus infinitive", modelled on Latin.

Whatever you do with it, I like the way that the main verb of the sentence doesn't come till line 8, mimetic, perhaps, of the speaker's growing frustration at nothing happening.