Blindness in the Poetry of John Milton and Jorge Luis Borges
The poems “When I consider how my light is spent” by John Milton and “A Blind Man” by Jorge Luis Borges express two different points of view and approaches to the concept of becoming blind. In both poems, the narrators express their thoughts and approaches to dealing with the fact of their blindness. John Milton overall takes a more spiritual approach, while Jorge Luis Borges focuses more in on the materialistic consequences of blindness.
Both John Milton and Jorge Luis Borges struggled to find a path in their lives after becoming blind. Unable to seek consolation through the gift of sight, they sought to find light and meaning to their dark lives. Their common struggle led to a loss of identity and a mental journey reflecting upon self-identity. Milton ponders the role he is meant to play in life after the loss of his sight and wonders as to how he can serve God. He asks “Doth God exact day-labor,light denied?” (Line 7), wondering if God requires the blind to work for him. This encompasses Milton’s devotion to God and his desire to stay devout despite the loss of his sight. He endeavors to preserve his identity as a pious Christian, as stated by “though my soul more bent/To serve therewith my Maker”(lines 4-5), voicing his desire to work for God, but also realizing he cannot serve God as he had previously. Yet, when the personification of patience answers “God doth not need/Either man’s work or His own gifts” (lines 9-10), Milton is essentially stating that he has not lost his identity; he is aware he can remain a follower of God even while blind. Borges goes through a similar struggle to find his own identity after losing his sight. The first line, “I don’t know what face is looking back/Whenever I look at the face in the mirror” (lines 1-2), blatantly expresses his loss of identity. Furthermore, “I have made out your hair,/Color of ash and at the same time,gold” (lines 7-8) shows a further loss of identity. By saying “your hair” instead of “my hair” and using the juxtaposition of the 2 colors, Borges emphasizes that he doesn’t know who he is any longer. He acknowledges Milton’s wise and Noble words through “I say again that I have lost no more/Than the inconsequential skin of things.” (Lines 9-10), realizing that his loss of sight is only superficial. However, “But then I think of letters and of roses,/I think, too, that if I could see my features,/I would know who I am, thus precious afternoon.”(lines 12-14) serves to emphasize that an essential part of his life is tied to the visible world, and he cannot help but lament his loss of sight. Overall, both Milton and Borges lose their identity along with their vision and struggle to find themselves in the dark.
At age 55, Jorge Luis Borges went blind. He knew he would because it ran in his family but still, refused to learn braille. In his poem “A Blind Man”, Borges reveals a deeper understanding to what he thinks of his blindness. Readers come to realize that Borges doesn’t take his blindness well. He starts off with “I don’t know what face is looking back” (line 1), expressing a tone of uncertainty in the first three words alone. He detaches himself with his choice of diction, choosing to say “the face in the mirror” (line 2) instead of referring to the face as his own, almost as if his face was something foreign; something he no longer recognizes and thus, cannot claim that it’s his. This struggle within himself has gone on for a good period of time, as proven when he labels his face as “old” and “already weary” (line 3-4). He feels rage towards his blindness and has rejected the reality of it for a long time, to the point where he is tired and “weary”, yet he still fights it. To really show readers what he means, Borges uses a lot of imagery. The “flash of light” (line 6) he mentions later is an example of sensual imagery that conveys that he can’t “see” so he can only rely on “feel”. At the same time, this is ironic because he can’t see, but feel light. Then, he further separates himself by depicting himself as two distinct entities. This is shown when he suddenly changes from first person to second person, saying “your hair” (line 7) instead of “my hair”. Recalling a change in point of view from earlier in the poem, he alludes to himself in third person, “the face” (line 2), but now relates it back to him in an indirect way. Borges feels as if he has two discrete identities because since he can’t see himself, how can he know that he is truly still himself? This forms the idea that seeing oneself is a way of confirming one’s own identity and existence.
However, Borges can’t do that so he feels lost. Borges describes his hair as the “color of ash and at the same time, gold” (line 8), an example of juxtaposition that serves to illustrate the fact that the speaker can only imagine what he looks like and by saying two very different colors, he automatically contradicts himself, purposefully getting the color wrong. He can’t confirm his hair color and therefore, anything he says will be false, at least to him. His reference to Milton exhibits Borges’s desire to adopt Milton’s take on blindness, establishing that they are “wise” and “noble” (line 11). Borges cannot help but wrestle his own grief of losing his sight because if he could see his “features, [he] would know who [he] is” (line 13-14). This strongly opposes Milton’s view, someone accepts and copes well with his blindness, highlighting their perspectives as the biggest contrast in the two poems by the two famous poets. Borges associates sight with identity. Without his sight, he doesn’t know who he is and what to do with his life. The title makes it painfully clear that his blindness is one that berates him every moment of life and he is unable to find solace anywhere. He shows his grief through the poem, an internal battle that he hopes he can escape from by seeing the world as Milton does. One crucial difference between the two, however, is that Milton has found comfort in God, whereas Borges just drowns in his misery, desperately searching for his own safe space but finding none.
Milton demonstrates a different approach to his blindness, initially with both contempt and anger. However, throughout the poem, as Milton reflects on blindness and converses with God, he ultimately reaches the conclusion to accept his blindness. Particularly, as Milton begins the poem with the line “When I consider how my light is spent” , it demonstrates that the speaker is reflecting on the life prior to being blind (line 1). His reflection is further continued as he introduces his life in the present and calls his world “dark” (line 2). The words “dark” and “light” are juxtapositions of each other and Milton uses them in the first two lines in order to demonstrate that the ‘light’ in his world has gone out. The use of this juxtaposition is to highlight the speaker’s bitter tone about his blindness. His reaction to his blindness is further highlighted as he calls his one “talent” “useless” (lines 3-4). In this context, this talent can be referred to as the ability to see and his characterization of his blindness signifies a disappointed tone. This tone contributes to Milton’s initial feeling of contempt towards being blind. His contempt further makes him question God, asking whether or not God requires labor even if he is blind. The rest of the poem tries to address this question, and specifically “Patience” replies (line 8). Patience is able to address the question by mentioning that “who bear his mild yoke serve him (God) best” (lines 10-11). Through this response, “Patience” can be seen as an example of personification of someone who wants to address the reader’s questions.
In his discussion of Patience, Milton also demonstrates that those who accept fate or things that occur to them are able to serve God the best. Patience continues to give examples of people who accept their own faith, starting off with those who “post over land and ocean without rest”, who can also be referred to as people who put in laborious work to worship God (line 13). And Milton ultimately ends off with the fact that “They also serve who only stand and wait” (line 14). This final line alludes back to the topic of patience and how fate will prevail with time. The “They” in this sentence also refers to the followers of God, and this ultimately shows how the speaker has come in terms with his blindness. Particularly, he has learned to “wait” and that in waiting, he will be able to build his own reality and live with being blind. This poem ultimately demonstrates a change in tone of the speaker from feeling contempt about being blind to accepting it. This change in mood is not represented in Borges’ poem, and is also a potential reason why Borges’ referenced Milton in his poem. The change in mood contributes to show the theme that even though blindness can contribute to such a drastic change, it’s the way in which one deals with the blindness that contributed to his/her identity. Milton’s ultimate portrayal that he has learned to become satisfied with his blindness highlights a positive view on blindness, which is a direct contrast to Borge’s opinion.
The poems ultimately take two completely different stances on the author’s perception of blindness, yet share a lot in common regarding their struggles and experiences as shaped by their blindness. These common struggles contribute to the impactfulness of the poem, and each author’s response characterises not only them, but what blindness means to them on a personal level.
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