About Writing, Inspirational Musings, Lessons from Writers

Patience and Failure: A Lesson by John Milton

Patience is our best weapon against failure, because failure has no way of fighting against the steady stream of a consistent heart.

Heartache is a universal experience. We all know how it feels, and we all know it can come into our lives at any time—and through a variety of avenues.

Recently, I came across a poem by John Milton that not only reminded me of the individual struggles we all experience as writers (and as people), but also made me hopeful for the future of my own writing goals (and other not so writing goals as well). Oh When I Consider How My Light Is Spent stands as a great poem on its own, a simple, yet profound reflection on how we use our talents, and how inadequate we may feel in the face of our weaknesses and limitations.

But after digging a bit deeper, and seeking to understand where John Milton was coming from when he wrote this poem, the sentences came alive. His life’s struggle at the time made it personal to him, and his beautiful articulation made it impactful to me.

I am not going to lie, when I first read this poem, I didn’t know John Milton had gone blind half way through his life, and was at that very moment struggling with his inability to see and write, and experience words as he had during the earlier years of his life. He was a writer by profession, and without his sight he felt as if his light, his talent, his very calling had become impossible to pursue.

I cannot say I know what it is like to lose my sight, though I have seen the effects on my own grandmother. But I understand the heartache that comes from not being able to dedicate all that you want to that one talent, which would kill you not to nurture and share with others. Many people love to do many different things. I love to write. It has always been a part of me, and when I consider why I do it, I honestly can’t say anything else other than, “not doing it isn’t an option because it would kill me.”

This doesn’t mean the process is easy. Writing, and more specifically the pursuit of becoming a better writer, has been one of the most arduous, and at times, heartbreaking endeavors I’ve taken on. It has demanded more than I ever thought something as simple as jotting things down could, because in reality, writing is more than putting words down on paper. Writing is taking little parts of yourself and unveiling them for others to judge, either to become part of themselves, or reject as a waste of time.

A collegue recently told me that writing is nothing more than observing, describing what you observed, and then attaching a message to it. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, he said, everything from the reason you share specific information to the reason of including a specific sentence in a dialogue, it all comes down to eloquently and artistically sharing a message.

I don’t know about you, but to me, it is that pathway of finding the perfect way of eloquently and artistically saying something so that it resonates with others that I find most challenging. Sometimes concepts that make perfect sense to me, don’t quite make the leap to another’s mind because the words aren’t bridging the gap between our personal understandings. That is why I found John Milton’s poem so powerful. His words pierced my mind and bridged me closer to his experience, though separated by decades.

When I consider how my own light is spent, how my own talent, which kills me to neglect or set aside because of outside factors I have no control over, I, too, feel despair at the thought of not being able to continue nourishing and sharing what I love.

In all honesty, sometimes I feel as though I will never be able to dedicate the time and effort I wish I could, and my heart aches and breaks at the thought. But John Milton did continue to nurture and share his writings with the world. He worked through his trials, and stood, and waited, and moved through until he found the light within his own darkness. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned there. Patience is our best weapon against failure, because failure has no way of fighting against the steady stream of a consistent heart.

I’ll leave this beautiful poem here for you to ponder and make your own. Different stages of our lives require different efforts and inputs on our talents and time, and no specific stage of development is less important or impactful than another just because of it.

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
John Milton (1608-1674)

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.”


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