This sonnet is constructed on the standard format of an octave that establishes a problem and a sestet that solves the problem. In keeping with Milton’s practice of introducing innovations into conventional forms, he places the turn of thought in the middle of line 8 instead of the beginning of line 9. The line of argument follows the paradigm of the Italian sonnet form.
The major premise of the poem is that God requires service. The key verb “serve” appears three times and is the linchpin on which the poem rests. In turn, the poem contrasts two types of service. One is active service in the world, a type of service that was seemingly unavailable to a person who had recently become blind. In the sestet the speaker discovers an alternate type of service that is equally acceptable to God. We can provisionally call it a service of private retirement as opposed to public service, though the final image of standing and waiting will add further dimensions to our understanding of the second type of service.
The experience presented in the poem is universal. For the poet, that experience was blindness. But the underlying principle is broader: irremedial loss, handicap of any type, life-changing injury, or chronic incapacity. In keeping with the Puritan premise of the primacy of the spiritual, we should note that the poem does not deal with Milton’s physical handicap but with the spiritual crisis that it engenders, namely, a fear that he cannot serve God acceptably. The solutions that the poem offers in regard to irremedial loss are also spiritual and are three in number: submission to God’s providence, patience, and hope.
The contrasts that organize the poem fall into place within the framework that has been delineated: active service versus a service of private retirement; a mood of despair versus a mood of triumph; a focus on self (I, my, me) in the octave versus a focus on God (his, him) in the sestet. Additionally, the syntax (sentence structure) in the octave is convoluted and finally collapses under its own weight, mirroring the speaker’s troubled thinking, whereas the syntax in the sestet is simple and direct, marching smoothly from one idea to the next. For all the complexity of syntax in the octave, the line of thought in the poem as a whole is constructed on a simple pattern: I ask, Patience replies.
The poem is a mosaic of biblical allusions. Two parables of Jesus are particularly relevant—the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16) and the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30). Both parables portray God as the sovereign who calls his workers or stewards to be active in service and as the judge who rewards his stewards for diligence and (when necessary) punishes them for inaction. Another particularly relevant passage is John 9:1–4, where we read about Jesus healing a blind man, accompanied by his famous saying, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” All of these passages are the informing context for the first eight lines of the poem.
Puritanism also provides a context for the poem. Puritan emphasis on calling or vocation produced a bias in favor of active work in the world. The octave of this poem can be viewed as a Puritan anxiety vision, as the speaker wrestles with his situation of being unable to do what Milton’s whole religious milieu said he had to do. But Puritan ideals equally determine what happens in the sestet, with its underlying premise of submission to providence as a service to God, and also the ideal of worshiping God as a worthy form of service.
The octave runs a course of fear, frustration, and incipient rebellion, culminating in the question, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” A whole complex of feelings and attitudes is encompassed in this question, including fear, incredulity, accusation of unfairness, protest, confusion, and rebellion. But we need to note that the question is asked “fondly,” that is, foolishly. The implied answer to the question is “no.” No one works in a vineyard after nightfall. Similarly, God does not require a service that someone cannot perform. The speaker has been beating a dead horse all along.
Lines 9–10 clarify this: God does not need or require people’s “work” or exercise of “gifts [abilities]” if a person is unable. The “best” service is to bear God’s mild yoke, that is, submit to him and rest in him. The “mild yoke” is an allusion to one of Jesus’s famous sayings: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). It is a commonplace of commentary on this poem that lines 10–11 provide an adequate solution to the speaker’s opening problem, and yet the poem keeps going. What is added, says one critic, explains why the ending of the poem “is triumphant rather then resigned.” Another critic speaks of the added element as a “joyous anthem.” We might say that the poem ends with a mini praise psalm.
The last three and a half lines—the “added” element—conduct an argument based on medieval and Renaissance ideas about angels (“angelology,” it was called—the study of angels). According to this theory (which lived on in Puritan thinking), there were two orders of angels— the active angels who busily served God in the world, and the contem- plative angels who always remained in God’s heavenly presence. At the end of the poem Milton links himself with the contemplative angels who engage in a service of heavenly praise, worship, and devotion.
The full note of triumph at the end requires us to unpack the meanings of standing and waiting. On one level, it is an image of monarchy— a picture of courtiers attending a monarch (see Dan. 7:10 for a picture of God’s heavenly court). But the crowning stroke is the word “wait” with which the poem ends. Waiting on God is a leading virtue commended in the Bible. To fill that out, we need to use a word search or a concordance and trace the image of waiting on God throughout the Bible. (Alternatively, see the article “waiting on God” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken et al. [Westmont, IL: InterVarsity, 1998]. When we do, we find that this Christian virtue encompasses a range of meanings, all of them positive: patience, resignation, dependence, contentment, hope, and joyous expectancy (including eschatological expectancy).