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

Lodged 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-labor, 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.”

~ John Milton, 1608-1674

I wrote my Masters thesis on John Milton, particularly on his epic poem of the fall of Satan and of Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost. I was fascinated, as many have been, by the character of Satan, who is by far the most intriguing and compelling figure in the poem, above God, the angels, and Adam and Eve (Eve is probably second, though; isn’t she always?). I argued, in a nutshell, that Milton’s Satan was the Christian poet’s alter ego, the one who wishes to “set himself in glory above his peers” (as Satan did) while somehow remaining cognizant of the fact that any heights he is able to achieve are gifts from God, as is his poetic talent itself.

One of Milton’s sonnets, the one quoted above, is another fascinating attempt to wrestle with God-given talent and what one is meant to do with that talent. In fact, the poem plays with the word “talent” as both gift or faculty and piece of money, as in that biblical parable about investing (Matthew 25:14-30). Milton wrote this particular sonnet as he was going blind, which he did at a fairly young age. (He was completely blind by the time he was 43. In fact, he composed Paradise Lost by dictating it to his daughter and others.)

Note how this poem starts out with a sweeping vista of the entire world; the first six lines worry about what the Master will say upon returning if his servant merely buries his one talent and thus refuses to allow it to grow, mature, or produce. He begins line 7 with a question posed to that great dark world, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” In other words, does God expect me to spread light if I have very little or none at all? He then realizes that his question is foolish (fondly = foolishly), when Patience responds—actually, prevents (that is, comes before) — “God doth not need/ Either man’s work or His own gifts.” The lesson the poet is taught is that what one must do is “bear the yoke” that one is given; the poem ascends from the individual back to the worldly level again, realizing God’s power and reach and might.

Part of me is itching to get my final dissertation chapter written; it’s what awaits me when I return from the holidays. I feel so good about having completed 3 of my 4 chapters now (though two need still to be revised). Once I complete the fourth chapter (which actually might end up being Chapter 1 of the finished dissertation), I have only to write my introduction and complete my revisions, and then – I think! – I can submit the dissertation to the committee in mid-March and defend it at the beginning of May. It feels so exciting to be so close (and yet so far!) to completing this PhD. This week I was planning on visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library to do a little archival research for my introduction. The Folger is just the coolest place. Once you are granted a Reader’s Card (the minimum requirement is that you must have completed all the coursework for your PhD), you have access to all of the Folger’s materials. It’s like a Shakespeare nerd’s wet dream. I remember the first time I was able to request a manuscript from the vault, the librarian brought it out and handed it over to me as if it were today’s newspaper: no white gloves, no face mask, no special tools, no one standing over me to make sure I didn’t breathe on it. The only rules for the library are that no liquids and no ink pens are allowed. You just lay that 400 year-old hand-written manuscript out on a reading table and have at it. By far one of the coolest things I’ve experienced—holding a piece of history in my bare hands.

[The other challenge is learning Renaissance paleography—Renaissance hand-writing and letters—in order to make out what is actually written. Can be a very painstaking, slow process. Did you know that when you see what looks like a lowercase, cursive “y” in old manuscripts, it’s actually a “th”?  That character is called a “thorn.” So the whole “Ye Olde” tradition (“Ye Olde Bookshop” or “Ye Olde Taverne”) is actually incorrect. What looks like “Ye” would actually just be the early modern way of spelling “The” (though of course “ye” was also a popular pronoun, too).]

But with the 20 inches of snow we experienced this weekend, schools are closed, which means my sweet AE is home with me. So while in one sense I am itching to continue working on my dissertation, to ride the wave of this unusual productivity I’ve been enjoying (it’s amazing what a looming deadline will do!), I’ve also enjoyed “standing and waiting”—just being with my sweet girl, writing Christmas cards, listening to music, puttering around our house, playing in the snow. It’s true: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

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