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John Milton

On his blindness

The Octave!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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John Milton was a Puritan -- i.e. a strict English Calvinist -- who recognised that he had an amazing ability to write poetry. When, however, he developed glaucoma and went blind while his poetic ability had still not been fully explored, he worried that God himself would hold it against him and punish him for not using his poetic talent.

This was reference to a New Testament story where Jesus told of how a wealthy man had given three people certain amounts of money -- a talent was a coin used in Israel. One man buried his talent instead of using it to earn yet more money, and he was later punished for doing so.

Milton equated his poetic ability with such a talent which was being buried because he was now blind and could therefore no longer write. As a Puritan, he expected his God to punish him -- even though it was not his own fault that he was now blind.


John Milton was born in London in 1608. He was of a wealthy family, his father probably being a merchant and shipping magnate. The son was therefore raised as a puritan, which was fairly typical of the urban bourgeoisie of the time.

It seems that Milton believed himself predestined for greatness. He attended Cambridge University, after which he continued his studies privately. In the end, he became the best educated poet in the English language, being able to write not only in English but also in Italian and Latin.

Milton spent most of his early life in the service of the puritan movement which, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, overthrew the monarchy in 1649 and established an autocratic republic in its place.

When, however, the English grew tired of puritan control and in 1660 re-established the monarchy, Milton found himself in a precarious position because all the leaders of the revolution were summarily executed. The poet was lucky that his standing in the community saved him and he was allowed to retire quietly -- but he nevertheless lost everything including his personal reputation.

By about 1650, shortly after the puritans had overthrown the monarchy, Milton developed glaucoma which led to his blindness. This had a devastating impact upon him because he had not yet achieved the greatness which he had predicted for himself.

His strongly puritan sentiment made him question whether God would punish him for his inability to develop his poetic talent. It was in this context that he wrote his most famous sonnet, "On his blindness" in about 1655.

His distress was exacerbated, however, by the fact that many influential people, including some of his friends, were claiming that his blindness was actually caused by God himself as a punishment for the poet's allying himself with Cromwell. It was believed that the monarchy was of divine origin and that rebellion against the king was therefore rebellion against God himself.

The glaucoma, however, did not end Milton's poetic career. He dictated "On his blindness" to his daughter and continued to dictate his further works, either to his daughter or to hired secretaries. Indeed, his greatest works -- "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained" -- were dictated during these years of blindness.

Milton married a teenager, Mary Powell, and with her fathered four children. Their marriage, however, lasted only ten years before his wife died while giving birth, an event which affected the poet deeply. He later married Katherine Woodcock who too would die during childbirth and within only two years of their marriage. His third wife, Elizabeth Munshull, would survive him.

John Milton himself died of gout in 1674. He was then 66 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

What type of sonnet is this? How do you know? (4)

[Need help?]

"WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide."
  • Explain the words "how my light is spent". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Do you know how old John Milton was when he wrote this poem? Was his life truly only half-spent? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does Milton mean when he says, "in this dark world and wide"? (4)

[Need help?]

"And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless."
  • What is a "Talent"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does Milton mean by "Talent" when he refers to his poetry? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why should the Talent be "death to hide"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask."
  • Supply a more modern word for "fondly". (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain in your own words why Milton was troubled about the fact that he had gone blind. (4)

[Need help?]

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