The standard interpretation of Milton’s sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent” argues that the poet is speaking about his blindness, a loss that torments him to the point of considering suicide, but he lacks the “talent” to end his life and thus finds the resolve to continue life, bear the loss of his vision because he has faith in God. The sonnet, as in many of Milton’s poems, contains imagery of light and darkness.
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 hideLodged with me useless, though my Soul more bentTo serve therewith my Maker, and presentMy true account, lest he returning chide;“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”I fondly ask. But patience, to preventThat murmur, soon replies, “God doth not needEither man’s work or his own gifts; who bestBear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His stateIs Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speedAnd post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:They also serve who only stand and wait.
There is one problem with this traditional interpretation. A printer, not Milton himself, entitled the sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent;” and that changes everything. Milton had entitled the poem “Sonnet 19.”
I believe that scholars, so focused on the light and dark imagery, have missed civic and economic metaphors in the poem. Yes, the appearance of “Talent” immediately after the light and dark, “light” sounding like “life” would guide modern readers to think that this is a poem about blindness; and the printer’s title certainly pushes the reader in that direction, but I think this is an example of unintentional misdirection. “Talent” as in skill or ability is a modern definition, not the poet’s intention, or how readers in his era would have understood the poem.
In the New Testament, Matthew 25:14-30, there is a parable about “hidden talents,” as in money, a unit of weight converted to silver. Since coins in ancient times were made of precious metals, it was normal for the ancients to take the weight for the value and vice versa (Libra = pound; Italian: libbra (weight); lira (Italian currency of yesteryear). So, a tàlanton as a currency was the value of a tàlanton (weight) of a certain precious metal, gold or silver normally, but it could also be bronze or copper. In Jesus’ times, the Middle East had been already Hellenized for centuries and a reference to a Greek currency would have been normal.
Matthew’s parable goes like this: one servant receives five talents, the second two talents, and the third one talent. When the master of the house returns, he asks for an accounting of his house. Two of the servants doubled their master’s money. The third servant took his talent, buried it in the ground and had no profit to show his master. The fiscally conservative servant is punished. It appears from the context (in particular from Mt 24:36 to 24:49) that Jesus is not referring to material wealth. The servant is chastised for not trying, for being lazy. Milton himself is expressing a similar concept: “who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” The economical metaphor of turning a profit, a return on profit is a modern projection and is part of our obsession with economy and “economizing.” In modern parlance, think of phrases like “investing in a relationship.”
Now look at Milton’s sonnet and notice all the economic terms: “spent,” “true account,” and “day-laborer.” “[M]ild yoke” and “day-laborer” are phrases found in Matthew’s parable. If John Milton were to see himself as the servant, the too conservative one in the parable, then his failure to his master is not trying hard enough, of not living up to his potential. Milton uses the language of obedience: “serve” three times in the sonnet. Milton served as Cromwell’s pamphleteer propagandist in the years between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. Milton’s view on regicide, divorce (see his The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce) and freedom of the press (see his Areopagitica) created enemies. With Charles II on the throne, the idea of a republican commonwealth shattered, Milton spent most of his fortune to save himself from prolonged incarceration and likely execution. Economic loss.
“When I consider how my light is spent” was written in 1655, three years after Milton had gone blind; but some scholars place the composition in 1652, the year he had gone blind and lost his wife and son. Personal losses. The sonnet was published in 1673, a year before his death from gout.