• Mass Times

• Coming Events

• Sacraments

• Ministries

• Parish Staff

• Consultative Bodies

• Photo Gallery

• Virtual Tour

• History

• Contribute


• Bulletin

• In Your Midst

• Pastor's Desk


• Becoming Catholic

• Bookstore

• Faith Formation

• Funerals

• Immigrant Assistance

• Liturgy

• Mental Health

• Music

• Outreach/Advocacy

• Pastoral Care

• Weddings

• Young Adults

• Youth Ministry





Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent
BY JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
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
   Lodged 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.”

John Milton was born in 1608 and died in 1674. He lived through a time of incredible political and religious upheaval. He was born during the reign of King James I, served in the government of Oliver Cromwell, and witnessed the fall of the commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II.
Milton had a special gift for languages, and wrote skillfully in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Hebrew, not to mention English. As a young man, he traveled extensively in Europe, and even met Galileo, whose fortitude under house-arrest made a great impression on him.
Milton’s life was also full of suffering. He was widowed twice, and none of his three marriages was particularly happy. Two of his children died in infancy. And just as he set out on an illustrious career in politics and literature, Milton’s eyesight began to fail. By 1652, in his mid-forties, he was completely blind.
In the marvelous sonnet Scott read, we get some insight into how Milton thought about his own blindness and his vocation, and the frustration he experienced as he struggled to move forward. “When I consider how my light is spent / Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.” He is just entering middle age – he is only halfway through his life, and already his “light is spent,” used up. It’s interesting that he speaks of the world itself as “dark” and “wide”; it is as though the darkness is not in him, but around him; the world itself has fallen dark. Inside, he is on fire to do and to accomplish, to use “that one Talent, which is death to hide.”
Milton alludes here to the parable of the talents, and feels convicted by it. In this parable, the landowner who gives one of his servants ten talents, another five, and another one, and then goes on a journey. While two of the servants invest their talents and make a profit, the third buries the master’s money and does nothing at all with it. Milton identifies himself with that least of the three servants. In his blindness, how is he to invest his “one talent”?  What will happen when he presents an accounting to his Maker? Will there be wailing and grinding of teeth for him, as for the servant in the parable? He asks the agonizing question: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” How will he fulfill his mission now that he is blind? What is God asking of him?
The poet turns for hope to a different parable – that of the workers in the vineyard. Some start first thing in the morning and work the whole day; others start at noon, others in midafternoon, and some are hired when there is just an hour left in which to work. “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied”? And the answer, of course, is no. And then another voice, that of “Patience,” responds to his fears. “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.” Rather, those “who best/ Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Patience offers a vision of God’s “kingly” state. Thousands come and go in his service, crossing “Land and Ocean without rest.” God’s kingdom is happening, even though the poet himself feels powerless and useless.
The most surprising line of the poem comes at the end: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This famous line is Milton’s wonderful reading of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. We typically think of that parable as a story about fairness. Why do those who worked only one hour get the same pay as those who worked the whole day? But Milton sees it differently. He notices a detail in the parable that is easy to overlook. The eleventh hour workers didn’t just show up at the eleventh hour to ask for work. They have been waiting in the marketplace all day long, and no one has hired them. That waiting is itself a form of service. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
At the end of the poem, the poet still doesn’t know the answer to the “why me” question. But he is no longer asking it. He recognizes that God’s vision is broader and longer than his own. In God’s time, not his own, he will be called to work in the vineyard, to invest “that one Talent” God has given him. In the meantime, waiting and bearing the yoke God has given him is its own form of service.



Return to St. James Cathedral Parish Website

804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303