The Patience to Prevent That Murmur: The Theodicy of John Milton's Nineteenth Sonnet

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IN the poetic hiatus between John Milton's Poems of 1645 and the composition of Paradise Lost, the onset of the poet s chronic blindness brought him, in his nineteenth sonnet, to the subject of patience:

   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, 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.

Milton produced twenty-four sonnets over the space of twenty-eight years and in this period he stretched the genre to its full capacity. After abiding by familiar Petrarchan topics situated firmly within the "Courtly Love" tradition in the poetic exercises of his youth (Sonnets I-VI), Milton adapted so apparently slight and constrained a poetic form to the service of diverse majestic modes: the panegyric (X, XV, XVI), the jeremiad (XVIII), the epigram (VIII), the polemic (XI, XII), the lamentation (XXIII), the allegorical drama (IX, XIV), and the Horatian familiar ode of hospitality (XX, XXI). In Sonnet VII, "How soon hath Time," and Sonnets XIX and XXII, the two "sonnets on his blindness," Milton sublimates the sonnet genre into a species of internalized spiritual contemplation. Milton included his celebrated nineteenth sonnet among the twenty-two new English poems that appeared in his 1673 Poems, etc. Upon Several Occasions, an edition enlarging upon his 1645 Poems. Given the nineteenth sonnet's overt reference to the failure of his sight, a date for its actual composition has been variously conjectured between 1651 and 1655, Published one year before his death, Milton's so-called "first sonnet on his blindness" transforms a genre associated with courtly romance, an initially secular form, into a medium for dramatic metaphysical inquiry.

In his mature verse, Milton was to accommodate the sonnet form to his theodical requirements of proclaiming God's providence and justifying God's ways. Both Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes climax with sonnets that announce God's purposes. First, Eve's fourteen-line unrhymed hymn on love, both human and divine, constitutes the last lines uttered by a human character in Paradise Lost (PL XII.610-23). In the hymn Eve attests her love for Adam and extols God's providence, that through her descendants "the Promisd Seed shall all restore" (PL XII.623). Second, as Louis Martz observes, Milton inserts into the choral exodos of his tragic poem Samson Agonistes a sonnet with a unique rhyme-scheme running ababcdcdefefef (SA 1745-1758; Martz 288-89). Like Eve in her speech, the chorus reflects upon the wonders of God's "unsearchable dispose," a divine providence "ever best found in the close."

The nineteenth sonnet, I will be arguing, comprises a meditation upon divine providentialism. Formally, the sonnet belongs to the Italian or Petrarchan type, which consists of a bipartite structure divided into an octave and a sestet of blank verse with the rhyme-scheme abbaabbacdecde. There is a line of critical vision that accepts the processual nature that this sonnet form lends to the poem, the peripety of the sonnet's psychic drama taking place at the volta, or "turn," between its eighth and ninth lines, that is, in the transfer from the octave to the sestet. The nature the sonnet's dramatized process takes, however, is less readily agreed upon. Fitzroy Pyle charts a switch in mood whereby "an angry sense of frustration at the onset of blindness gives place to steady hope" (Pyle 386-87) and, overall, "a record of impatience recollected in a state of patience" (Gossman 372). …