Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


Sonnet 19 ("When I consider how my light is spent")



John Milton

(December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674)


When I consider how my light is spent,
     E're 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 deny'd,

     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 milde yoak, 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 waite.




This sonnet is first published in Milton's Poems in 1673 as sonnet XIX. In his notebook, the Milton Manuscript ("Trinity manuscript") at Trinity College, Cambridge, "There is no sonnet numbered 18 (or, for that matter, 19 and 20) and Sonnet 21 [...] Evidently a page is missing. (This is a terrible loss in the case of what we now call Sonnet 19, "When I consider how my light is spent," since the manuscript might have left us a clue as to exactly when it was written, a matter which Milton's critics have debated incessantly.)" (Patterson 90).



spent: used up

Ere: before



chide: scold or rebuke (Oxford Dictionaries Online)


day-labor: cf. John 9:4: "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." See also John 9:1–7.



prevent: forestall

murmur: expression of discontent by grumbling (Online Etymology Dictionary)

11  Bear his mild yoke: cf. Matthew 11:29–30: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

13  post:

13  o'er land...only stand: cf. Paradise Lost 3.648–53 below

14  They: i.e. angels; cf.

Th'Archangel Uriel, one of the sev'n

Who in God's presence, nearest to his throne,

Stand ready at command, and are his eyes

That run through all the heav'ns, or down to th'earth

Bear his swift errands over moist and dry,

O'er sea and land.

(Paradise Lost 3.648–53)

But O th'exeeding grace

Of highest God, that loves his creatures so,

And all his workes with mercy doth embrace,

That blessed Angels, he sends to and fro,

To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe.

(The Faerie Queene 3.8.1 ll. 5–9)

14  stand:



When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase, 5
Cheerèd and checked even by the selfsame sky,

Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay

Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay

To change your day of youth to sullied night;

    And, all in war with Time for love of you,

    As he takes from you, I engraft you new.


—William Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Sonnets, eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library


On Shakespeare


From Shakespeare, Plays (1632) From Milton, Poems (1645)
On Shakespeare
What needs my Shakespear for his honour'd Bones,

The labour of an age in piled Stones,

Or that his hallow'd reliques should be hid

Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid?

Dear son of memory, great heir of Fame,
What need'st thou such weak witnes of thy name?

Thou in our wonder and astonishment

Hast built thy self a live-long Monument.

For whilst to th' shame of slow-endeavouring art,

Thy easie numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu'd Book,

Those Delphick lines with deep impression took,

Then thou our fancy of it self bereaving,

Dost make us Marble with too much conceaving;

And so Sepulcher'd in such pomp dost lie,

That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die.


—John Milton




How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth,

     Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth yeer!

     My hasting dayes flie on with full career,

     But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.

Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
     That I to manhood am arriv'd so near,

     And inward ripenes doth much less appear,

     That som more timely-happy spirits indu'th.

Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,

     It shall be still in strictest measure eev'n
     To that same lot, however mean, or high,

Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n;

     All is, if I have grace to use it so,

     As ever in my great task Masters eye.


—John Milton, Poems (1645)


The Value of Literature

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them […] A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

—John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)



[...] If any one thinks that classical studies of themselves cultivate the taste and the sentiments, let him look into Salmasius’s Responsio. There he will see the first scholar of his age not thinking it unbecoming to taunt Milton with his blindness, in such language as this: “a puppy, once my pretty little man, now blear-eyed, or rather a blindling; having never had any mental vision, he has now lost his bodily sight; a silly coxcomb, fancying himself a beauty; an unclean beast, with nothing more human about him than his guttering eyelids; the fittest doom for him would be to hang him on the highest gallows, and set his head on the Tower of London.” These are some of the incivilities, not by any means the most revolting, but such as I dare reproduce, of this literary warfare.

Salmasius’s taunt about Milton’s venal pen is no less false than his other gibes.

—Mark Pattison, "Chapter 9: Milton and Salmasius.—Blindness.," Milton (London: Macmillan, 1879)



Study Questions

  • Milton’s Sonnet 19 begins as if with a sense of angst “when [he] consider[s]” achievements thus far in life. At what moment(s) in the course of the ensuing thirteen lines does this suggestive feeling of worry or unease slide into something else? How does the transformation happen?
  • The two parables in the Bible from Matthew that Milton alludes to in his sonnet seem to advise opposite things: while the Parable of the Talents threaten a terrible punishment for “hiding” one’s talent, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard assures that working is acceptable in different forms and manners. Why does Milton need the two parables in his sonnet? How does he use the opposing tensions of their teachings? Note that Milton’s summary of the lesson in his final line is in neither of the Bible passages. Consider also that Aunt Lydia, the Bible-citing warden of the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, quotes Milton and not the Bible! What power has Milton achieved with his English when his is the remembered version of an idea and referred to as an authority like that of the word of god?
  • There is a lot of activity for a fourteen-line poem that contemplates inaction. Look at the verbs in the sonnet. What story do they tell?
  • In what way does the speaker's anxiety have to do with time?
  • Explore Milton's use of contrasts. For example,
    • light-dark
    • day-death
    • ask-reply
    • speed-wait
    • post-stand
    • work/labor-rest
  • It is common for the classically-educated in Milton's time to be fluent in Greek and Latin. Look up some words in this sonnet in a dictionary with etymological information (shows the meaning of the word's roots) like the 20-volume OED (Oxford English Dictionary) or Hoad's Dictionary of English Etymology and consider how those meanings inform your understanding of the poem. How might the meaning of the Latin root of patience, for instance, explain the urgency of the speaker's concern and the late placement of the volta?




Review Sheet

Italian, Petrarchan sonnet
Miltonic sonnet
volta, turn


rhyme scheme




biblical allusion




Sample Student Responses to John Milton's Sonnet 19

Response 1






Student Name

2202234 Introduction to the Study of English Literature

Acharn Puckpan Tipayamontri

June 21, 2010

Reading Response 1

















Poem Text
  • Sonnet XIX, Representative Poetry Online (with notes)
  • Sonnet 19, Darthmouth College (with notes)
Related Texts
Critical Essays
Other Resources
The Sonnet Form



  • Milton 1608–1674, Section 7, Six Centuries of Verse (1984 documentary; 25:25 min.)

  • Anna Beer, "John Milton and Lycidas," University of Oxford (2014; 18:31 min.)

  • Shakespeare vs Milton: The Kings of English Literature Debate, intelligence2 (2014; 2 hr. 11:57 min.)



John Milton



Bush, Douglas, ed. Milton: Poetical Works. London: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.

Maclean, Hugh, and Ann Lake Prescott, eds. Edmund Spenser's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Print.


Further Reading

The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Eds. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print.

Danielson, Dennis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Hughes, Merritt Y. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Cambridge: Hatchett, 2003. Print.

Milton, John. Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. Stella P. Revard. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print. [with original spelling and punctuation, notes]

Patterson, Annabel. "Chapter 5: Milton's Heroic Sonnets." A Concise Companion to Milton. Ed. Angelica Duran. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 78–94. Print.

Pattison, Mark. The Sonnets of John Milton. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1883. Print.

Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Self and the World. University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Print.

Shawcross, John T. The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Anchor, 1971. Print.

Verity, A. W. Milton's Sonnets. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1944. Print.



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Last updated January 14, 2018