Thursday, 26 May 2016

'They serve him best' by Eve Lockett

Milton – on his blindness
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 hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "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.”
We have probably heard the last line quoted so often it has become a proverb. But do we know the whole poem? I had to learn it at primary school, which tells you a bit about my age and my English teacher.
What is Milton saying? In fact, only the use of the word ‘light’ tells us he is talking about his own loss of sight. The title was added many decades later by someone else.
It is a poem filled with emotion, with grief, with passion. And yet Milton’s voice is a measured, thoughtful voice – ‘When I consider how…’ The whole poem combines feeling, reason and spiritual insight in a powerful balance. Milton is not ranting, he is trying to work something out.
The third line only makes sense if you know the parable of the talents. And that is the clue to his grief. He is not complaining that his quality of life has been spoilt and God is to blame for his blindness; no, his concern is that God should not judge him on the Day of Judgment as unfruitful or unproductive when he now lacks the means to be so. Again, the parable of the talents.
But Patience, the voice of wisdom and love, comes in to reason with him – reminding him God doesn’t hire us because he needs a job done that he can’t manage himself; God asks us to accept our mortal condition without turning against him. Serving him can simply be an attitude of alert, watchful, faithful love, longing for his return. It is God who gives us fruitful lives, as we serve him with our hearts. Witness the poem itself – still being read after more than three hundred years, and still speaking to us of our special relationship with our Lord.
‘Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest… ’ I know, I’ve met them. They make me feel very small. At the same time, I know when I try to be like them I lose my identity and balance. But this poem reminds us that serving our heavenly King is more radical. He asks us to use the gifts he has given us, but working out what that means in practice might surprise us. Patience? Waiting?  Poetry? Oh yes!



  1. Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful post that has given me a new perspective on things. Much to mull over for me, I think. Thank you.

  2. This is a very 'releasing' kind of post. Thanks.

  3. What a wonderful post Eve! I was in danger of losing my eyesight almost completely some years ago. Thanks to God and some very skilled hospital staff. I didn't. This is a wonderful post that made me think that my idea of "productivity" is often completely flawed :)

    1. Thank you for this, and for sharing your own special story.

  4. I feel that really, even more than the last line, we should memorize 'Who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best'!

  5. Beautiful. A very perceptive "unpacking" of one of my favourite poems. And those were the days, Eve - my love of English poetry dates back to when I was 9 and my class teacher had the inspiration to introduce us to Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum.

  6. I'm grateful to some amazing English teachers. They loved their subject.

  7. I've never been able to get my head around Milton, but your careful unpacking was very thoughtful. Thank you.