What is a word? A word is a thought, but it isn’t really, it’s a breath of air emitted from a speaker in a certain way to express a thought and understood by the listener, so it is the symbol of a thought. It is a collection of letters in special configuration on a piece of paper that when seen signal the reader a certain meaning. That’s the symbol of a symbol.
Unlike a picture of a man walking across a cross walk or putting his hand out to stop or going up a set of stairs next to an arrow, it has more than one meaning, more than one direction to the viewer. The picture symbol is telling you one thing, the picture of a coin is money (though I supposed it can also mean value, but you must choose which meaning in order to interpret it). A word has its traditional meaning, or a dictionary definition, its denotation. The word “light”, for example, is defined as “electromagnetic radiation that has a wavelength in the range from about 4,000 (violet) to about 7,700 (red) angstroms and may be perceived by the normal unaided eye [or]…Something, such as a window, that admits illumination.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition)
But a word can also carry with it an implied meaning not in the dictionary definition. For instance, in John Milton’s poem “light” means “life” or “life’s work” or the energy expended during his lifetime to accomplish things. When he speaks of half his life spent in darkness, he is telling us that he is going blind. He is actually living in darkness, but because it is a poem, we could infer that the word “darkness”, given the connotation of “light”, could mean the lack of energy expended in doing good works. In other words, he’s looking back on his life and realizing that he has not done as much as he could have, has not accomplished as much as he wanted.
When he uses the word “talent”, it is actually a biblical reference (though I admit I learned this from the book I was reading). In this case, a word is representing an entire passage in the bible (Matthew 25:14-30) – it’s an allusion. So a word can represent not just a dictionary definition or a number of ideas, but an entire parable with its own world of connotations. In the passage “talent” is a coin, something given by the Master (I guess we are to infer that the Master is God) and the servant receiving the coin is expected to find a way to make more money with this money, to put what he is given to work for the betterment of Humankind. The servant who doesn’t do this, who hoards his coin, is cast out to eternal punishment for his greed and his laziness.
But here as well “talent” is given a double meaning, a talent can be a useful skill and also something that should not be hoarded.
The poet states, “And that one talent..lodged with me useless.” So, he says that he had a talent, but it stayed there (lodged, roomed) within him and did not do anything. It seems to say that he didn’t use it, but lodging is a passive term meaning “to take a space and live there.” And the way he places the word talent in the sentence (the talent lodged with me) makes the talent the subject of the sentence and he is its object, so he’s really saying that it didn’t do anything, but he did things. Later he speaks of how he served, so he did do good works, but the talent did not.
So, he wonders, if his talent, rendered useless by blindness, not used makes him worthless as a soul. He wants to make this complaint to God on his day of judgement (make it fondly which here means “foolishly”, because the word “fond” in his time meant “foolish”), but he remembers that God doesn’t need men’s works or the gifts that He gives them, so what does God really want from him?
He concludes that God wants him to “Bear his mild yoke”. A yoke is a harness to a plow that cow or a horse or any beast of burden is hooked up to in order to do work. The cow pulls walks forward and pulls the plow which furrows the earth (creates a long ditch) and thus the crops can be planted. The cow has no choice but to wear the yoke and to walk when asked to, thus the connotation of a yoke is something that burdens us, some task we must do, some person or object we must care for whether we like it or not. It implies hardship, but he softens the word with the adjective “mild”, as in the work isn’t that hard (the yoke is not that heavy). And how hard is it to just walk, to just pull.
So, if the yoke connotes work, then he is saying that he has done the work that God has asked of him and that is all. I could be cynical and say that in other words he passed the class, barely, with the lowest grade (a D-) he could possibly get, but, hey, he passed and that’s enough. I think that he’s trying to comfort himself with the thought that he did the best he could given his setback, or at least the best he could figure out how to do.
He was not the servant who figured out how to best use his talent, but perhaps he didn’t have the talent of figuring out what to do with a particular talent. That’s okay, he pulled his share when he was asked to, he continued to be faithful to God (which is the “yoke” he is referring to) and so he should feel less regretful about it.
I think this is a good instruction for those looking back on their lives and regretting what they did not do. It’s better to count the things that you did do, remember the people who you were there for, the things that you were able to accomplish and to remember that you did what you thought was best at the time, and could not have known better (perhaps that illumination was not given to you at that time). And if you have plenty of time left, plan for the things you would like to do and then, with the wisdom you have acquired, go do them.
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.”