Milton’s Political Uselessness
Written by Jason Farley on January 14, 2018
In 1652 John Milton went completely blind. His eyes had been waning, the world fading, for some time. The darkening was complete the same year his first wife and only son died at one year old.
He was a published poet, but he had spent his energy in English politics and education since the time of the Long Parliament in 1640. He believed it to be his life’s work. He was doing something important. Which was his soul’s hope. He wanted to be of use to England. He wanted his work to bring England closer to the kingdom of God. So he had thrown himself into politics and education.
But then he went blind.
A blind man cannot read a crowd. A blind man cannot control a classroom. A blind man cannot compete in any of society’s important spheres.
Not a man generally given to joviality it was hard for him to bind back the despair. He was . Like St. Jerome in his cave, Milton was God’s grouch. And now his life goal, until this point singularly sought, was to be politically useful to England and to Christ’s church.
But blindness begs the questions, “Doth God exact day labor, light denied?” That is what Milton writes in the middle of his poem “On His Blindness.” He looks at his desire to affect the political future of England, he looks at the talent that he had always loved to use—the talent that was “death to hide/Lodged with me useless” now that he was blind—and now he has no part to play in the political future of England. Milton has to fight back the furtive feeling of uselessness.
He tries to let the voice of Patience temper his temptation to murmur. “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts;” He encouraged himself by remembering Christ’s office. “His state/Is Kingly.” He tries to encourage himself by remembering his station. “Who best /Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best…Thousands at his bidding speed/And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:/They also serve who only stand and wait.” But God has absolutely thwarted his plans.
Of course, God has a habit of thwarting even His own plans. He promises seed to men with barren wives. He promises eternal thrones to conquered kings. He promises a nation to a clan he sent wandering and houses to a tribe with whom He shares a tent. He even sends His own Son to a cross after promising Him the inheritance of all the nations. The God of the universe habitually thwarts His own plans, and God is eternally on every path He has ever walked. So John Milton was never alone in the dark.
But God also had more for Milton than Milton had asked or imagined. He wanted to be of use to England, but his imagination was cramped by his experience. God’s plan for Milton would never fit into the tight spaces that politics affords. Milton was like the second to last child in a summer evening’s game of sardines. He would never fit in political power’s hiding place. God’s plan was to Make Milton an epic poet and shake the foundations with his learning and prowess. Only sightlessness would give him a grandiose enough vision to complete the tradition of epic poetry begun by the other blind poet, Homer, the father of epic.
In blindness Milton became the poet that God had created him to be. Leaving behind those realms in which he expected to be influential, in blindness he became one of the most influential writers, not simply in England, but throughout the world. Milton was able to take the three balls of yarn of western culture–the classical world, the early church fathers, and the biblical literature–and knit them into the greatest gowns ever woven for Lady English.
Milton was called by God to do something greater than reform one island’s politics. He was called to re-form the imagination of his linguistic brethren throughout the world for generations to come. And only blindness could free Milton from the cares of other callings in order to focus his vision on God’s calling for him.
So those moments in which God sabotages your plans—or even seems to be sabotaging His own plans—when your life looks “lodged with you useless,” remember, God knows what He is doing with you. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”