A Sonnet to Revisit
I recently had occasion to reread Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” Its challenging syntax can be a little daunting, but doesn’t diminish the poignancy of certain lines that resurface when we need them, resonant reminders of something true. Here’s the sonnet, in case you haven’t cracked open your Norton Anthologies for a while:
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, 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.”
This time, as I read it, I thought about Gertrude. I visit Gertrude every few days. She can still carry on what for a while seems to be a perfectly lucid conversation until she reminds me or herself that her parents will be coming to pick her up soon, to take her home to Sycamore Street. She’s 92, and in a so-called “memory care” unit. Some days her moments of lucidity are tragic. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she says, weeping quietly. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know why I’m sitting here. No one wants to be with me.”
I can reply, “I do,” and hold her hand. But I know her question isn’t that easily answered. I remember my mother, not quite so far gone, but losing her mental clarity at 94, answering, when I breezed in and asked, “How are you, Mom?” “Well…I’m fine…but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.” She had days when she, like Milton, felt that her “light was spent.” Her days had been long in “this dark world and wide.” She had invested her one talent, served God in ways I still deeply admire, among orphans and the dying in India, and schoolchildren in her southern California schoolrooms. But now she sat a good part of the day, and gazed, and wondered.
“They also serve who only stand and wait.” I think I quoted the line to her once, knowing she had a Milton file somewhere in her memory bank, and a much larger one where long passages of Scripture were stored. It might have been she who told me that the line was adopted as a slogan during WWII to encourage those who could do little stateside for the “war effort.”
She knew something about waiting. She had read and reread the many injunctions to “Wait on the Lord.” In Psalm 27 it is made strong and explicit: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” I once came upon a letter her aged father, a pastor, wrote when snowed in and near starving during a particularly bitter Minnesota winter. He described the desperate conditions in which he and his family were surviving, and ended with the words, “How precious it is to wait on the Lord.” I believe, given all I’ve heard about him, he meant it. No martyr, a man of some humor, his deep resilience came from deep faith of a kind most of us do well even to imagine.
Waiting is strenuous. Milton knew that. It’s especially hard for those whose calling — passion drives them to work. And the irony of its being his eyes, or Beethoven’s ears, or an Olympic runner’s legs, or a pianist’s hand that suffers a crippling affliction is always a particularly hard mystery. Why these particular losses? And for that matter, why do the good die young?
It is not only the waiting that is hard; it is the relinquishment of the power that comes with talent that poses the great spiritual challenge he took on in this sonnet. “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts.” I have reminded myself of this as I’ve written poems or essays or books: I write them because the energy and desire and preparation have been given, and because I’m here to do it, but not because I know what they’re for. My job is to say yes. Then say yes again. And one day it may be that what I’m asked to say yes to is stopping.
As I write this yet another friend is dying. She was not ready for this, and none of us were. She was vibrant and vital, gifted and rich in love, wholly given over to life, teaching, generous training of young singers, delight in others’ accomplishments. Now she mostly lies and gazes out the window, having little energy left, but able to listen to the many love messages that come to her. She is waiting to die. I get up every morning these days thinking of her. She wakes up having to say yes to another day of immobility, increasing pain, loss of capacities, incontinence, others’ anxiety, and the disappointment that must not go away over all that might have been. But she was able to say to me recently, about one of those days, “This, too, is the day the Lord hath made.” The next line, we both knew is “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Not simple-minded piety in one of her temperament, but a challenge she set herself, like Milton, to live into her waiting as her final form of service.