Desmond Kenny and Michael Northen
WHEN I CONSIDER JOHN MILTON: GIVING A DISABILITY LIT PIONEER A SECOND LOOK
Among the canonical writers in English literature force fed to high school students without the life experiences to appreciate their work, John Milton and Alexander Pope are the only ones with visible physical disabilities most students are likely to encounter. Of the two, only Milton alluded to his disability in his published work. Much has been made of Milton's use of light and shadow in Paradise Lost, but it is in his "Sonnet XVI" (sometimes given the title "On His Blindness") that Milton personally grapples with his loss of sight:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Some of us, who experience sight loss and live with its frustrations, can't really envision John Milton as living patiently with his blindness. You can't have advanced, as he advanced, in the diplomatic service without having fought continuously with the technical frustrations of reading and writing with no technology (magnification to assist poor eye-sight in his early years, and no precursor to Braille in his middle and later years) and only amanuensis to take down his words, and have it read back for slow revision —no cutting and pasting here. Jean-Paul Sartre spoke, in an interview, in 1975 (which can be read at nybooks.com) about his frustration when sight loss in his later years was making it difficult for him to revise drafts of his work to a final acceptable standard of completeness. Maybe it is useful to take the frustrations with sight loss experienced by somebody as iconic as Jean-Paul Sartre to join us in perhaps debunking that most acquiescent of lines "They also serve who only stand and wait."
Sartre's comments on his own blindness may help give a higher credence to what Milton may have felt at times when working on revisions of his poems:
I can neither read nor write. More exactly, I can write, that is to say, form the words with my hand, and I can do this more or less comfortably now, but I cannot see what I write. And reading is absolutely out of the question. I can see the lines, the spaces between the words, but I can no longer distinguish the words themselves. Without the ability to read or write, I no longer have even the slightest possibility of being actively engaged as a writer: my occupation as a writer is completely destroyed.
What will no longer be accessible to me is something that many young people today are scornful of: style, let us say the literary manner of presenting an idea or a reality. This necessarily calls for revisions—revisions which sometimes have to be made five or six times. I can no longer correct my work even once, because I cannot read what I have written. Thus, what I write or what I say necessarily remains in the first version. Someone can read back to me what I have written or said and if worst comes to worst I can change a few details, but that would have nothing to do with the work of rewriting which I would do myself. ("Sartre at Seventy," www.sartre.org/interviewatseventy.htm.)
In his time, Milton was far from politically docile. His teatise The Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the good of both sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law and other Mistakes and his "Sonnet XV" ("Avenge O Lord thy slaughter'd Saints…") railed against what he perceived as injustice against emerging Protestant sects. His essay Areopagitica is still considered a landmark text in the defense of freedom of the press. Even as he lost his vision, however, Milton was not granted the gift of prescience. As one of the first, by accident or by design, to bring the subject of blindness to the table, he could not have anticipated how writers four centuries later in the wake of a Disability Rights movement and the products of totally different cultural norms would react to his work.
"On His Blindness," therefore, should not be taken as passive acceptance of the state of blindness in which Milton lived and struggled for acceptable standards in his work. The sonnet is a literary device whose content and tone he may have shaped through adherence to the form. It may not have been used by him as a major opening up to us on the frustrations he felt or, indeed, the complete opposite —the representation of an absolute state of "docility" in accepting his blindness. Indeed, the title is one not given to the sonnet by Milton himself but attributed to it a century later by Bishop Newton. Had Newton not interfered with the title and thus the focus on its suggested subject matter, the poem would have been known by its number (XVI) or titled using its first line ("when I consider how my light is spent"), how different might have been the place occupied by this poem in Milton's considerable body of poetic works?
Dusted off and held up to a modern disabilities perspective, Milton's "Sonnet XVI" seems ripe for investigation on many levels. Wordgathering has invited authors who are blind or have visual impairments themselves and have written about it in their own work to react to Milton's sonnet in some way.
The results of those reactions are as diverse as the Trick or Treat bags kids collect their confections in on Halloween, and, like those would-be ghosts and princesses pouring out their stash as they arrive home, the first question is how to organize everything collected. While any number of more subtle and thought-provoking organizations might have been used, we've decided to keep it simple, placing those most like Milton's original sonnet in form and content and moving out from there.
The response that holds most tightly to Milton in form and initial appearance belongs to Ana Garza G'z who stays essentially with the Petrarchan sonnet form Milton used. 'She also begins with the same line. Then, rather than address Milton, proceeds to use the poem (as Milton did) as a means of meditating upon the same question and thereby demonstrate the relevance of Milton's concern to that of blind writers even four centuries later. She hones in on two key concepts from the original sonnet, waiting and serving, and in the end turns the table to say, not who serves, but who does not serve. Though the reference to Milton is obvious in the context of this essay, it is worth noting that Garza G'z never specifically mentions him. This forces the casual reader in another context not only to recognize the origin of these lines but then to see how the poet points to Milton as a literary forefather.
Who Only Stand and Wait
Kristen Witucki also retains the sonnet form but varies slightly by using the Shakespearean sonnet scheme for the first half of the sonnet. She employs some of the same devices as Garza G'z including the focus on vocabulary derived from the original and beginning with the first three words of Milton's poem. What Witucki does, however, is to challenge his concept of sitting and waiting, pulling Milton in the end into a conversation.
When I consider those who stand and wait,
Three more of the responses also took the form of a poem and each show a different direction that Milton's legacy might take. Ria Meade's choice was to abandon formal verse in favor of free verse, thus giving it a more modern sensibility. In other ways, however, Meade's poem is the one that most directly engages Milton's sonnet. She asks specifically whether the issues that he grappled with are still relevant to a person of faith in the twenty-first century, first thanking the poet for the role he has played and then concluding that with a critical change in perspective, they are.
I Call on the Spirit of John Milton
In my own poem, I point to another direction that a poem of the twenty-first century might take in response to Milton. While the form might momentarily invoke Milton, the poem is actually a Shakespearean sonnet, not a Petrarchan one. I neither name Milton nor try to duplicate his language. What the poem is about—as the title reflects—is my own "sense" of blind. If sight is a sense, could blindness also not be a sense? What I might share in common with Milton is both the literal and metaphorical importance of light.
My Sense of Blind (Desmond Kenny)
A third strategy for paying tribute to Milton's sonnet is represented in Jill Khoury's poem, "ere gifts." Even more than Mead's, Khoury's poem brings with it the look of twenty-first century experiment and like Kenny's it seems to make little surface reference to Milton. In fact, however, all but the last stanza of the poem are composed entirely of words taken from Sonnet XVI —literally bringing Milton's words into the present.
While most of the poets asked to respond to Milton's sonnet answered with poems, the others chose prose —three of them essays. In the interest of allowing readers the choice of either reading the complete essay immediately or returning to it at the end of this piece, we have printed only the first two paragraphs of each with a link to the remainder of the essay.
Stephen Kuusisto's reply targets perhaps the most important assumption that Milton's sonnet makes: that blindness is a test. Four centuries later it is an assumption still made overtly today by many who are members of organized religion and tacitly by those who engage in the language of "overcoming."
When I read Dear Milton's famous sonnet on his blindness I feel the sorrow of another man's belief. Milton's Protestantism was based in large part on the idea of Sola fides—the notion that faith alone was necessary for salvation. This is opposed to the Catholic belief in good works as a primary principle of divine forgiveness. I remember vividly the day some thirty years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa and the true suffering contained in this poem hit me for the first time. The "one Talent" which is death to hide is faith. Against this, the standard language of seeing as a metaphor for belief is impossible. I tried to imagine being that man. A man who was surrounded by political and theocratic enemies; who lived on charity; whose blindness had no ophthalmological explanation and so was fit for a superstitious and Calvinist interpretation. Against all this the poet imagines his sightlessness is a test of Sola fides. Imagine this burden. To me, They also serve who only stand and waite feels like the sensibility of an airline passenger who imagines his faith holds the plane aloft. There is no "milde yoak" here, no matter Milton's use of wit. The poet believed his blindness was a test and I wish I could go back through time, like some science fiction character, and tell him that God doesn't live in a man or woman's eyes. Blindness tests nothing. It is a native country without punishments.
Of all the pieces submitted, the most scholarly and the one that looks at Milton's sonnet at the greatest depth within the context of his own time is Andrew Sydlik's essay "Out of Sight." What Sydlik's essay reveals is the importance of critical writing about the forerunners of disability literature. He demonstrates how one can give writers credit for what they contributed, being products of their time, rather than simply bashing them, and at the same time how what they had to say might be relevant to one's personal experiences.
Out of Sight: Response to Milton's Sonnet 16 ("On His Blindness")
My take on John Milton's Sonnet 16 (aka Sonnet 19 aka "On His Blindness") is that it should not be looked at solely as an exploration of blindness. Essentially, the poem speaks to me about contemplative spirituality and acceptance of one's place in the world. Blindness may or may not be one way that the poem enters that conversation.
A visually impaired writer myself, sometimes I write explicitly about my disability, sometimes I refer to it only indirectly. In the past, I was afraid to see myself as disabled because I believed that disabled was synonymous with inferior. I no longer think that way, but I also recognize many identities in myself—poet, male, white, heterosexual, cheesy horror movie fan, etc. Part of accepting my disability was looking beyond it. Click here to continue.
On the other end of the spectrum from Sydlik's is Emily Michael's "Lightspending." Michael's essay is a narrative of personal experience. It is pegged to Milton's sonnet only in the oblique reference of its title and the images of light that she weaves throughout the piece. Still, it is a consideration of how light is spent — one freed of religious overtones in a way that Milton could probably never have imagined.
In the second week of guide dog training, nine dog-human teams prepare to travel the mall in Brandon, FL. New to the area, each team descends from the brightly colored school vehicle to the warm pavement, where trainers tell us to harness up. Adjusting my silver shoulder bag and lifting York's harness off my shoulder, I ask him to stay. I fold the harness's free-hanging belly strap across the back strap so the large buckle won't smack him in the face: "Harness on."
York's shiny black head slides through the chest strap and I secure the belly strap with a metallic click. I stand and lift the square grip of the harness handle in my left hand. I work York forward, respecting his cue to stop for the automatic doors. Once inside, I ask York to find a chair, and he leads me to a section of food court tables clustered beneath the skylight. Click here to continue.
The final essay of the group belongs to Tasha Chemel. It is also the most overtly political piece and the most likely to make the uninitiated reader uncomfortable. Despite its title, it is in some ways the essay of the group that, dredged up into contemporary times, Milton may have been the most likely to write. While it is tempting for us today to become Monday morning quarterbacks of his religious views, in political speech, Milton was unflinching. Like Chemel, he prized freedom of speech and found the political correctness imposed upon him irksome.
I Am Not Your Milton
You'd think that after twenty-seven years of this alien existence, I'd have learned to be a little bit more compassionate towards people and their weirdness towards me, but I haven't. It's always a fresh wound. Every time the workshop facilitator says, "I don't want to offend you, but I've never met another person like you before. How do you refer to your…impairment…disability?" (Delicately perfumed pauses, deep enough to drown in). Every time a classmate asks, "Did you see that movie…oh, I mean, did you listen to it?" (More hesitations, persistent as flies, unrelenting as needles). Every time a stranger calls me inspirational, just because I managed to get out of bed in the morning and walk to the bus stop. (Someone said that unrestrained wonder cripples curiosity).
I want to tell the workshop facilitator that political correctness was invented for people like her, so that they can hide behind their Power Point presentations and their fear. I want to tell her that I am totally blind, that my retina is dying, that all the tepid euphemisms in Washington won't dissolve my pain. Instead, I tell her politely that she can say "blind," that it's all right, that her anxiety is all right, that she is all right, and I smile, and she smiles, sort of, and I somehow know that a tiny bit of revulsion flits at the corners of her eyes. Click here to continue.
The offerings above provide readers with a unique set of insights into their own sense of what blindness suggests and means to these writers four centuries after Milton concluded his final revisions on his sonnet. Each writer has found in Milton's lines keys to open up for us their own perceptions and insights into aspects of their own blindness. They also critically empathize with Milton and find ways to say how blindness might have been conditioned for him by the religious rigors of his time or perhaps resisted differently by him.
Every individual's experience of their own disability is a unique experience but common strands of personal struggles weave into that universal struggle for individuality and for personal fulfillment. That struggle can find its context in the predicted or preferred outcomes set by organized society in its norms, and in how those norms are influenced and fixed by its adherence to its practiced religions.
At the same time, the collective responses of the poets above demonstrate one important way that disability literature as a genre can develop. Despite the impressions left to us by those anthologies of literature that we read through in high school and college survey courses, people with disabilities did exist in the past and they did write. It is through the kind of literary archeology, reclamation and transformation of these writers' works that writers of today give credibility to this past and provide the scaffolding for their own work, one whose insights and viewpoint is only available to those with a disability. John Milton, already one of those figures in the pantheon of English literature, is a good place to start, but it remains to be seen when a future Alice Walker unearths work of another Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, poets like Jennifer Bartlett, with her ground-breaking research on the poetry of Larry Eigner, are already at work.
One final thought. It's undeniably tempting to take our own myth of progress and sense of enlightenment a bit too seriously. It is true that Milton made the tacit assumption that all of his readers would be sighted. But don't even most contemporary writers — even those who consider themselves to have a disabilities sensibility—do the same? A person listening to Milton's “Sonnet XVI” might have an experience roughly parallel to that of a reader who accesses the poem visually, but what happens when a writer begins to play with the poem, leaving the sonnet form but eliminating Milton's rhyme and/or rhythm? Isn't that poet forgetting the reader for whom the mere appearance of line breaks means nothing? And what about poems where all of that white space creeps in, where does that leave the reader who can't see it? Re-reading and rethinking Milton and other writers of the past who had disabilities can help us to hold our own literary feet to the fire. If for no other reason, they deserve a second look.
(Editors Note: In our continued look at how literature of the past depicts disabilities, Wordgathering invites interested readers to submit work "In Response to Tiny Tim" for our next issue.)