They Also Serve

I’m waiting. I’ve been waiting. I can’t tell you how much of my life lately has been about waiting.

I’m waiting for my foot to heal from surgery so I can walk again. I’m waiting for someone’s decision on a major proposal. I’m waiting for the release of my next book. I waited days for tech support to bring this website back up again from disaster.

I’m not waiting passively. I have plenty to do, and I’m keeping busy. Still I wait.

Which brings to mind my second-favorite poem of all time, John Milton’s (1608-1674) sonnet on his blindness. Its final words comprise my favorite single line in all English literature–although it takes the whole poem to make its closing as good as it is.

My favorite poem is still T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” whose imagery is compact yet astonishingly rich, and whose closing line arrives with equally weighty surprise as the one in this poem. That last line differs from the one in this sonnet of Milton’s, though, in that it means nothing apart from the context of the full poem.

On another day I might find another line of literature more perfect than the one that ends this poem. Today, though, I am waiting, and today for me it is perfect.

By way of explanation, the phrase “my light is spent” is Milton’s reference to his own blindness. The middle portion of the poem refers to Jesus’ parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, and Milton’s fear of being held to account for “hiding” his own chief talent.

But this is a poem of grace. Milton’s soul is “bent to serve… my Maker,” and he only wonders “fondly” (meaning “foolishly” here) what will happen if he doesn’t do more. “Patience” answers, telling him that God’s accounting does not depend on what we do as much as on our readiness to serve.

The Poetry Foundation renders it in modernized spelling,

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.”

Comments

  1. BillT

    Thanks Tom. Beautiful and powerful though another fifty or so readings will be needed to even begin to truely unfold it.

    As sonnets are a passion of mine as well I hope I might share one of my favorites from the Bard.

    When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
    The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
    When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
    And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
    When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
    Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
    And the firm soil win of the watery main,
    Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
    When I have seen such interchange of state,
    Or state itself confounded to decay;
    Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
    That Time will come and take my love away.
    This thought is as a death which cannot choose
    But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

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