Literary Analysis of John Milton’s “When I Consider…”

Known for a book that is often found in Top 100 lists — Paradise Lost — “John Milton” is a name recognised by most literature buffs. He died in poverty and ill health: a sad end for a gifted writer.

John Milton

John Milton. Image: The Guardian (UK)

In his famous poem “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”, Milton writes about his increasing blindness and questions his God as to why this happened to him and how it is possible to serve Him by being thus. In this 17th Century poem the main poetic devices are the following: prosody, situational irony, and tone.

But first, you should probably read the poem:

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-labor, 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.”

Prosody is used throughout. Milton has a unified rhyme scheme abba-cddc-efg0efg.

Under further observation, the reader may notice that the last word of each stanza rhymes with the first of the next: spent, present, need, and speed. Milton also uses the standard poetry form of his time – the sonnet (which consists of fourteen lines). The character of the poem is the poet himself.

The situational irony of “When I Consider” is that Milton knows that he is talented, but doesn’t know how to deal with it: “And that talent which is death to hide” (line 3). It is ironic because here is a man who is incredibly talented, yet isn’t able to use his talents.

Finally, “When I Consider” exhibits a woeful tone of loss. It is doubtless a great blow to lose one of one’s senses and this poem shows Milton dealing with this as best he can: through his writing. This poem was written by a deeply conflicted Puritan man, a talented man who lost his independence as he lost his vision.

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