Consolations of literature
To the editor:
One wonders how Milton coped with his utter blindness. In Sonnet 19, when I consider how my light is spent, he offers a hint. In the sonnet, Milton laments that he is losing his sight. No one equals the strength of Milton in the realm of English poetry, and he bears supreme confidence in his own talent. But how, he asks in the sonnet, is he expected to complete his divine work as a poet, and bring to fruition his God-given Talent, with “light denied”? With patience, he answers himself:
“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.”
Interestingly, this concept of humility as a source of consolation, also appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam, as the familiar story goes, has been thrown out of the Garden of Eden along with Eve and is visited by archangel Raphael. Even though Adam is handicapped by the limitations of his human mind, Raphael is delivering knowledge about the heavens to Adam, and satisfying his endless curiosity. At one point, Raphael warns Adam about the temptations of binging on knowledge for knowledge-sake, especially when it is not practical:
“Heaven is for thee too high, to know what passes there
Be lowly wise
Think only what concerns thee and thy being
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree,
Contented that thus far hath been revealed.”
Great literature feeds subtle concepts to the human imagination, and thereby encourages nuanced ways of thinking. The human imagination, enriched by such art, can be a source of consolation for the various adversities that life is bound to throw at us.
Ultimately, standing and waiting, and being lowly wise is something Milton himself did not resort to. Despite the light denied to his eyes, he used his immense talent to create the lacquered beauty of Paradise Lost, and thereby touched the face of the divine.