In his sonnets, John Milton tackles a number of subjects which he addresses at considerably greater length in his other poetry and prose. These subjects range from religious to political, and rarely is any one piece of writing limited to one or the other of those fields. While his Sonnet 16 begins with a challenge to familiar biblical passages, Milton ultimately uses it to offer a critique of the nearly ubiquitous comparison between the king and God.
The sonnet features two motifs that run throughout the first seven lines. Both are biblical, and both are introduced in the first line. The one that seems to be the most significant is the light and dark imagery. In the first line, it sounds like a reference to Milton’s blindness (this is more or less plausible depending on which date of publication you accept). As this language continues to crop up, it appears that Milton’s darkness has a larger importance. In the second line, he refers to the world as dark, and in line seven, he uses the lack of light to pose a frustrated question to God. By using this vocabulary to describe his fears, Milton creates a connection with two passages from the Bible that use the same language to explain the will of God and the way of the world. In Matthew 25: 1-13, a brightly shining lantern symbolizes a person’s preparedness for God’s coming, and in John 9:4, Christ refers to the limited time he (and every man) has to do God’s work on earth before “the night cometh, when no man can work” (King James Bible). Milton engages with these passages, so that when he reaches the height of his dilemma, “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,/I fondly ask” he is issuing a direct challenge to a statement made b...
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... God has a tireless band of angels as well as his followers among men who have learned to set aside all else and worship him.
In this sonnet, Milton manages to turn his personal complaint into not one but two of his favorite things: praise of God, and intense criticism of the king. By focusing on the parable of the talents and its ties to both the worldly and the spiritual, Milton calls God and King into relief. He is then able to use God and His eternal, abiding goodness to highlight the King’s small-minded, self-centered tyranny. This direct comparison gives readers a sense of Milton’s belief that earthly authority is corrupt, and should never be a part of religion. God and the King are so vastly far apart that to bring them together, whether in poetry or in a church hierarchy, is offensive to God and can only bring out the weaknesses of the King.
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