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Brighter than the shades of death, 1654
A literary giant describes his nemesis – and his inspiration?
A strange confluence of things has brought me to this week’s Histories. A few weeks ago I was reading The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews, a partly supernatural historical novel set in the 17th century. I enjoyed it (with some reservations) – but I’m not writing a book review here. One of the secondary characters in the book is the poet John Milton, and without giving any particular spoilers his blindness crops up in the storyline.
John Milton (1608–1674) was born in London, his father a composer and scrivener (a sort of clerk). John was bright and well educated, hoovering up Latin and Greek and studying at Cambridge. He immersed himself in literature, travelled in Europe and began writing poetry. He also wrote political pamphlets, covering subjects such as divorce and freedom of speech, the latter notably in a landmark 1644 essay, ‘Areopagitica’. His knowledge of Latin led him to become Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell. All of this developed while he struggled with increasingly poor eyesight, and when he was 43 he went completely blind. Yet despite this immense challenge, and with the help of amanuenses such as another renowned poet of the age, Andrew Marvell, he continued his work, and his masterpiece, the epic poem Paradise Lost, was published long into this period of affliction, in 1667.
Reading about him got me wondering about whether he had written about his loss of sight, beyond his obvious allusion to it in Sonnet XIX known as ‘On His Blindness’ (most famous for its final line, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’), believed to have been written in 1655.1 It begins…
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…
And then by a strange twist of fate a coupe of weeks ago I lost some of my own vision. Not anywhere near the extent of Milton’s loss, but enough to change my daily life and affect reading and and writing in particular. You may find some of these articles a little shorter for a while as I adapt to new circumstances! Anyway, this isn’t about me, and it could be a lot worse – but it certainly adds a little extra poignancy to delving into Milton. And of course it turns out that he did indeed write personally about his sight loss.
In his 1654 work The Second Defence (in Latin, Defensio Secunda), in support of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, Milton attributed his eye problems to excessive candlelit study in youth (a debate about myopia which continues to this day, now pointing the finger at computer gaming):
From the twelfth year of my age I scarcely ever went from my lessons to bed before midnight; which indeed was the first cause of injury to my eyes, to whose natural weakness there were also added frequent headaches…
But he also wrote a longer, more personal account, in which he sought to describe the symptoms and progression of his affliction. This he did in a letter to his friend Leonardos Philaras, a Greek diplomat and scholar, on 28th September 1654 – Philaras had asked him for this account.2 Here it is.
You have kindly addressed me by letter, separated as we are in our situations, and known to you only by my writings. And when you came unexpectedly to London, and visited me, when I could not see you, you manifested the same kindness even when I was in that calamity, which did not render me more conspicuous to any, and perhaps despicable in the estimation of some. But as you advise me not to abandon all hope of recovering my sight, and have at Paris your friend and relation Dr Thevenot,3 celebrated as an oculist, whom you can consult respecting my eyes if I give you an account of the causes and symptoms of their disease, I will comply with your suggestion, lest I should seem to reject assistance, when perhaps providentially offered.
I think it is about ten years since I first perceived my sight to weaken and become dull: at the same time my spleen and bowels were disordered, and flatulent; as soon as I commenced reading in the morning, as usual, my eyes became very painful, and seemed opposed to the employment; but after moderate exercise of the body, they recovered; when I looked at a candle a kind of Iris surrounded it. Not long afterwards, a dimness arose on the left part of the left eye, (for that eye became dim many years before the other) which prevented my seeing any thing on that side. If I closed my right eye, objects in front of me appeared smaller. The other has been gradually failing for the last three years. For some months before I entirely lost the sight, every object that I looked at steadily, seemed to swim to the right and left: constant vapours appear to burden my whole forehead and temples, which generally depress my eyes with a drowsy heaviness, especially after eating meat, until evening…
I should not omit to mention, that whilst as yet some sight remained, as soon as I lay on my bed, and reclined on either side, a copious light shone out when my eyes were closed. Afterwards, as my sight diminished daily, obscurer colours flashed out with force, and with a kind of internal crackling; but at this time, the brightness being, as it were, extinct, a perfect blackness, or mingled with the colour of ashes, flows in. Yet the dimness which I experience by night and day, seems to incline more to white than to black, and when the eye rolls, a little light is admitted, as through a small crevice.
Whatever hope the physician may gather from this account, I prepare and compose myself, under the consideration that I am certainly incurable. And I often think, that since the days of darkness, to which every man is destined, are, as the wise man warns, many; that mine, by the great mercy of Providence, happening in the midst of leisure, and studies, and the conversation and salutations of my friends, are much brighter than the shades of death. But if, as it is written, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God, why should not any one submit for this reason also, that he can see not only with his eyes, but that the leading and providence of God is sufficient sight. Truly, if He take care of me—if He provide for me—which He does, and lead me by the hand, and accompany me through life, I shall willingly permit my eyes to be unemployed.
That’s an impressively Stoic response, I think – and elsewhere he chose to describe the darkness as the shadow of God’s protective wing. Modern scholars have attributed his blindness to various causes – retinal detachment and glaucoma being the most convincing, and both treatable in our luckier times. Milton made his giant mark regardless.
Another poem written that year, Sonnet XXII, notes: ‘this three years’ day these eyes, though clear / To outward view of blemish or of spot, / Bereft of light their seeing have forgot…’
For more on the subject see the 1930 article ‘On the nature of Milton’s blindness’ by Arnold Sorsby in the British Journal of Ophthalmology here and you can read a more modern medical take on Milton’s blindness here. I took the letter’s text from this 1829 translation by John Hall, the original being in Milton’s beloved Latin.