This poem is one of my all-time favorites–a favorite in the favorite series! Sometimes when I’m teaching this poem, I have to fight back tears as I reach the end of the poem.
I can understand Milton’s frustration in feeling like his talents aren’t being used (to some extent–I’m nowhere near as talented as he was and certainly haven’t had the same difficulties as he). But the truth is God doesn’t “exact day-labor, light denied.” He doesn’t ask us to do something and then deny the resources; He’s not a hard Task-Master like the Egyptian Pharaohs who oppressed the Israelites.
Milton’s motivations are correct: “To serve therewith my Maker.” But while some angels are busy flying throughout the universe doing God’s work, others are standing around God’s throne worshiping Him (Rev. 5:10-12). Both the serving and the waiting are acceptable worship to God. I think that God sometimes allows us to go through alternating periods of serving and waiting because we need to learn different lessons during each season of life.
“When I consider how my light is spent” by John Milton
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.”
I’m teaching Stuart Renaissance poetry to my 12th graders this week and always love reading the sonnets by John Milton that are included in their anthology. This poem speaks of Time’s steady march forward and how quickly life passes us by. As Milton waited for his Task-Master to give direction, he continued to mature, develop his talents, and trust in God.
“How Soon Hath Time” by John Milton
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom show’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endueth.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.
This is another favorite poem by Billy Collins. I laugh every time I read it or watch Collins read it. I once watched the entire poetry reading that’s available on FORA.tv and enjoyed it greatly.
“Litany” by Billy Collins
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
– Jacques Crickillon
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.
Billy Collins is one of my favorite modern poets. I love his unique images and humor. Here’s his “Introduction to Poetry,” which is the first poem in the Library of Congress’s Poetry 180, started by Collins when he was Poet Laureate. This poem is always the first poem I post on my classroom wall as the “Poem of the Week.”
“Introduction to Poetry”
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
This poem reminds me of the times my mom, brothers, and I went apple picking when I was growing up. I love fall in Vermont! And I love Robert Frost; what collection of poems would be complete without Frost?
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that yourself ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And virtuous mind, is much more prayed of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and loose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine and born of heavenly seed:
Deriv’d from that fair spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair like flowers untimely fade.
I like the reminder in this poem that the Holy Spirit is the source of true, heavenly beauty. Outward forms of beauty will fade away, but the inward spiritual beauty will last forever.