John Milton – “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”, “Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint”

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” is a personal sonnet, reflecting on Milton’s blindness. What hurts him most is not the fact that it incapacitates him but that limits his capability to serve God as a poet (of course, since he did go on to write Paradise Lost, it didn’t stop him). He remembers the biblical parable of talents, frets that he sinfully wastes his talent and asks God “fondly” (foolishly) how he expects him to work like by day if he denies him light. In the second part Patience explains to him that God doesn’t need man’s gifts or work, but expects to bear “his mild yoke” patiently; he has thousands of people who do his command all over the world. Thus, also those who “only stand and wait” can be good servants of God.

“On the Late Massacre in Piedmont” is Milton’s response to the terrible events in Italy, where the army of the Duke of Savoy massacred thousands of Waldensians (a proto-Protestant denomination) on Easter day. The sonnet is directed to God, asking him to avenge this atrocity against people who preserved the ancient purity of faith when the ancestors of Milton worshipped idols. He implores God to record the terrible massacre in his book. In the final sentence, recalling both Tertullian’s maxim that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” as well as the myth about Cadmos, the founder of ancient Thebes, who sowed the teeth of the dragon he killed and got an army of men who grew out of them, Milton expresses his hope that the blood and ashes of these martyrs can give rise to a hundredfold more true believers, who will escape “the Babylonian woe”.

“Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint” is another personal sonnet inspired by the death of his wife, although scholars can’t quite agree which one: the first one, Mary Powell, with whom he had a famously rocky relationship (she was 16, he was 35 and apparently completely inexperienced regarding relationships or sex; she was from a Royalist family, he obviously was a Republican; she moved back with her parents after a month of their marriage, he wrote a series of pamphlets arguing that divorce should be legal; she did go back to him after three years and died in her fourth childbirth) or his second one, Katherine Woodcock, who died after less than two years of marriage, also in childbirth. If it’s the second Mrs Milton, this makes the sonnet even more poignant, because in the dream vision Milton describes, he cannot actually see his dead wife’s face, just like in life, because he married her when he was already blind. She is veiled, like the mythological Alcestis brought back from the underworld by Heracles. He hopes to have the full sight of her in heaven, but even with her face veiled, he thinks all her good qualities shine through the veil. But as she is about to embrace him, he wakes up, she disappears, and in an oxymoronic phrase, “day brought back my night”. It is worth noticing that in this sonnet, like in all the previous ones, Milton uses run-on lines, so the end of the phrase or sentence does not coincide neatly with the end of the line, like in Elizabethan sonnets. What follows is that the “volta”, or shift of ideas, does not happen exactly at the end of line 8, as it was supposed in the traditional Italian sonnet. Sometimes it happens somewhere in the middle of line 8, as in the first sonnet discussed in this post (Milton shifting from his own thoughts to the imaginary figure of Patience), but I would be hard pressed to indicate “volta” in any of the two other ones.

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