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The Blindness of John Milton

      John Milton (1608–1674) has often been regarded as the greatest poet of his time, yet he did not compose his most famous work, Paradise Lost, until after he had become blind in both eyes. On the basis of clues in Milton's writings, several possible diagnoses have been advanced to explain his loss of vision. Herein the evidence for and against each theory is presented.
      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 hideLodged with me useless, though my soul more bentTo serve therewith my Maker, and presentMy true account, lest he returning chide,“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”I fondly ask. But Patience, to preventThat murmur, soon replies: “God doth not needEither man's work or his own gifts; who bestBear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His stateIs kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,And post o'er land and ocean without rest;They also serve who only stand and wait.”(Sonnet XIX—John Milton
      )

      MILTON'S LIFE

      John Milton was born in London on Dec. 9, 1608. His father, a successful scrivener, arranged for his intellectually gifted son to be tutored privately. The child genius excelled in languages but delighted particularly in Latin; by the age of 10 years, he was studying long into the night. In 1620, in preparation for a career in the Church of England, Milton was enrolled at St. Paul's Cathedral; the high master was Alexander Gil and the dean was poet John Donne.
      Milton began studies at Cambridge on Feb. 12, 1625. He was unhappy with his initial tutor at the university, and to add to his distress he was nicknamed the “Lady of Christ's Coll,” apparently because of his fair appearance. He was unfavorably impressed by his fellow ordinands and decided against a career as a cleric. Despite his milieu and his lack of interest in his formal studies, Milton received the master of arts degree, cum laude, on July 3, 1632. More important, during his university years, Milton matured as a poet and perceived that writing poetry was his calling.
      In the 1630s, Milton collaborated with Henry Lawes to produce two musical plays. He also wrote Lycidas, an elegy for a Cambridge friend, Edward King; this has been termed “the most beautiful thing in English.”
      • Wilson AN
      In that era, poems for dead persons often had little to do with the deceased but instead were used as a vehicle for public expression by and recognition for the poet. In Lycidas, Milton confirmed that he would not take orders in the Church; rather, he thought he was destined to achieve immortality through his divine fate as a poet.
      A pivotal experience in the life of the young Milton was a 15-month trip to France, Italy, and Switzerland during 1638 and 1639. Although Milton's poetry was not widely appreciated in England until late in his life, in other parts of Europe, he already had been recognized as a major force. During that peripatetic Continental journey, Milton met some of the influential men of that era, including Hugo Grotius, Giovanni Manso, Galileo Galilei, and Claudio Monteverdi. Although Milton's original aim in traveling was for cultural and intellectual enrichment, he began to observe the precipitating unrest in England between King Charles I and Parliament from a new viewpoint. Galileo's persecution, in particular, convinced him of the need to defend liberty against inquisitional tyrannies. His religious and political thought, heretofore inchoate, began to form. Milton did not subscribe completely to the doctrines of Calvin, but he was firmly Protestant, in the true sense of the word, and anti-episcopal. He returned to his native land with a determination to use his writing skills to expose what he perceived as the inappropriate use of authority by the bishops of the Church of England. During the next 3 years, Milton authored five so-called pamphlets, which actually were small books, against the clergy. As was common in debates of the day, mudslinging abounded. Milton was accused by his detractors of being “vomited out” of Cambridge “into a suburb sink of London,”
      • Wilson AN
      but he retaliated with even more acrimonious comments about the odor of the bishop's socks. One rues the loss of poetry that Milton could have written with this misplaced energy.
      In 1642, animosity turned to amour, if only briefly. Milton met and fell in love with Mary Powell, who at 17 years old was half his age. After a brief courtship, they were wed; however, within 3 weeks, the bride had returned to her parents' home. The following year Milton published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, which sold well but did not substantially alter contemporary attitudes or legal standards. He dedicated the second printing to the members of Parliament, with whom he sided in the national schism between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Milton authored two more divorce pamphlets, and during this period, he also wrote Areopagitica, a plea for liberty and unfettered thought.
      These mordant writings (the anti-episcopal pamphlets and the divorce articles) are mentioned because they have been cited by some people as important evidence about Milton's psychophysiologic state relative to his health and vision, which first began to fail in August 1644. The following year, however, life improved; his wife returned, and their first of four children was born.
      National civil strife intensified, and in 1649, King Charles I was executed. Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell, who was soon to be Lord Protector. Although Milton actually proved to be a skilled administrator, he was already well known for his critical pamphlets and was hired chiefly to be a literary assassin—a propagandist to write rebuttals against publications that praised the previous administration. Among the most pernicious of such documents, in the eyes of Cromwell, was Defensio Regia, authored by Claudius Salmasius, a Frenchman who was considered one of the great scholars of the age. Milton's response, the Defensio Populi Anglicani, was devastating, and Milton and Salmasius were compared with David and Goliath, respectively. By this time, however, Milton had lost all sight in his left eye, and the vision was diminishing rapidly in his right eye. He later wrote, in the Second Defense, that
      the choice lay before me between dereliction of a supreme duty and loss of eyesight; in such a case I could not listen to the physician, not if Æsculapius himself had spoken from his sanctuary; I could not but obey that inward monitor, I know not what, that spake to me from heaven. I considered with myself that many had purchased less good with worse ill, as they who give their lives to reap only glory, and I thereupon concluded to employ the little remaining eyesight I was to enjoy in doing this, the greatest service to the common weal it was in my power to render.
      • Pattison M
      In his Sonnet XXII, Milton also attributed the loss of his sight, in part, to work on the rebuttal to Salmasius.
      The year 1652 was not a good one for Milton. By March or April, at the age of 43 years, he was completely blind in both eyes; in May, his wife died 3 days after giving birth to their fourth child; and 6 weeks later, his third child and only son, John, also died. In August, a rebuttal to his rebuttal, the Defensio, appeared, entitled The Cry of the Royal Blood to Heaven Against the English Parricides. This round shifted from political commentary to vitriolic, personal abuse. In Milton's reply, the Defensio Secunda, published in 1654, he refers to Salmasius as “Fool, Beetle, ass, blockhead, liar, slanderer, apostate, idiot, wretch, ignoramus, and vagabond…”
      • Masson D
      In the midst of all this vituperation, however, Milton indicated that he was reconciled to his blindness, which was a worthy price to pay in the defense of the Good Old Cause: liberty, God, and the Almighty's chosen instrument, Oliver Cromwell. This public affirmation, however, is inconsistent with some of his private writings in which he began to question Cromwell's inappropriate lust for power.
      In 1656, Milton began work on Paradise Lost. The epic expresses in verse much of his own theology, which he had developed and recorded in a manuscript, De Doctrina Christiana, that was lost and was not published until it was rediscovered in 1823. Paradise Lost, he wrote, was delivered to him by the Muse, whom he identified as the Holy Spirit, who visited him nightly. Milton awoke each morning, prepared to dictate the next installment of verses to an amanuensis. The year 1656 also marks Milton's marriage to Katherine Woodcock, who apparently was the one true love of his life. A daughter was born the following year, but soon after childbirth, both mother and baby died. In his grief, Milton composed his last sonnet in memory of his second wife. The sonnet is a wonderfully sweet account of a dream he had in which he almost sees the face of his betrothed before awakening.
      Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658 set the stage for the restoration of the monarchy 2 years later. A warrant for Milton's arrest was issued because of his previous support of the regicide. Apparently, however, the thought of a rebarbative Milton in the dock was sufficiently frightening to the new government, and shortly thereafter Milton was included in a sweeping pardon granted by the politically savvy Charles II. In fact, the king later solicited Milton's literary services, an offer that the increasingly introverted poet refused. Milton was married for the third time in 1663, to Elizabeth Minshull, the cousin of his close friend Dr. Nathan Paget.
      Only during the last few years of Milton's life was he finally recognized in England as a great poet. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, although it had probably been completed at least 2 years previously. Milton's History of Britain appeared in 1670, and an engraving by William Faithorne was used as the frontispiece for the work (Fig. 1). The engraving, done when Milton was 62 years old, is considered the most original and accurate likeness of the poet among the more than 500 portraits and engravings that have been cataloged.
      • Martin JR
      Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published in 1671; the latter work, as one would expect, is somewhat autobiographic and contains numerous references to Milton's final acceptance of his blindness. He suffered from gout during his final years and died after a brief illness on Nov. 9, 1674, 1 month before his 66th birthday.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Fig. 1John Milton at 62 years of age; engraving by William Faithorne for frontispiece of Milton's History of Britain. (By permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.)

      MILTON'S BLINDNESS

      The Evidence.

      What is known about the signs and symptoms that accompanied Milton's blindness? The family history is unremarkable. “His father read without spectacles at 84…”;

      Aubrey J. Cited by Sorsby A.7b

      this ability was most likely due to nuclear sclerotic cataracts that allowed so-called second sight. Milton's “mother had very weak eies and used spectacles presently after she was thirty years old…,”;

      Aubrey J. Cited by Sorsby A.7b

      however, information that suggests that a hereditary eye disease afflicted Milton is minimal. No information indicates that Milton had poor vision during his youth, although, in the Second Defense, he attributed excessive study as an underlying cause of his later problems: “From the twelfth year of my age I scarcely ever went from my lessons to bed before midnight; which indeed was the first cause of injury to my eyes, to whose natural weakness there were also added frequent headaches.”
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      During early adulthood, Milton's vision was sufficiently satisfactory for him to use a sword with some proficiency. In the Second Defense, he also stated, “I was won't constantly to exercise myself in the use of the broad sword, as long as it comported with my habits and my years.”
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      Milton's Sonnet XXII,
      written in 1655 for his friend Cyriack Skinner, suggests that the external appearance of his eyes was normal. In addition, he refers to his sight being lost in the defense of liberty: Cyriack, this three years' day these eyes, though clearTo outward view of blemish or of spot,Bereft of light their seeing have forgot;Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appearOf sun or moon or star throughout the year,Or man or woman. Yet I argue notAgainst Heav'n's hand or will, nor bate a jotOf heart or hope, but still bear up and steerRight onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?The conscience, friend, to have lost them overpliedIn liberty's defense, my noble task,Of which all Europe talks from side to side.This thought might lead me through the world's vain masque,Content though blind, had I no better guide.
      Additionally, Milton wrote in his Defensio Secunda that his eyes were “externally uninjured. They shine with an unclouded light, just like the eyes of one whose vision is perfect. This is the only point in which I am, against my will, a hypocrite.”
      • Pattison M
      Nathan Paget, Milton's friend and early biographer, wrote, “But his blindness, which proceeded from a Gutta Serena, added no further blemish to them.”
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      Gutta serena indicated amaurosis or blindness in the presence of a clear pupil, in contrast to gutta obscura, which referred to visual loss from cataract. Paget's comment echoes the words of Milton in Paradise Lost:
      Thee I revisit safe,And feel thy sovran vital lamp; but thouRevisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vainTo find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,Or dim suffusion veiled.
      The most detailed description of the history and symptoms of Milton is in a letter written on Sept. 28, 1654, to a Greek friend, Leonard Philaras. Philaras had asked Milton to outline his story so that the account could be submitted to a Parisian oculist, Thevenot, for his opinion. The letter was written in Latin, and the translation is as follows: It is ten years, I think, more or less, since I noticed my sight becoming weak and growing dim, and at the same time my spleen and all my viscera burdened and shaken with flatulence. And even in the morning, if I began as usual to read, I noticed that my eyes felt immediate pain deep within and turned from reading, though later refreshed after moderate bodily exercise; as often as I looked at a lamp, a sort of rainbow seemed to obscure it. Soon a mist appearing in the left part of the left eye (for that eye became clouded several years before the other) removed from my sight everything on that side. Objects further forward too seemed smaller, if I chanced to close my right eye. The other eye also failing slowly and gradually over a period of almost three years, some months before my sight was completely destroyed, everything which I distinguished when I myself was still seemed to swim, now to the right, now to the left. Certain permanent vapours seem to have settled upon my entire forehead and temples, which press and oppress my eyes with a sort of sleepy heavyness, especially from dinner time to evening…. But I must not omit that, while considerable sight still remained, when I would first go to bed and lie on one side or the other, abundant light would dart from my closed eyes; then, as sight daily diminished, colours proportionately darker would burst forth with violence and a sort of crash from within. But now, pure black, marked as if with extinguished or ashy light, and as if interwoven with it, pours forth. Yet the mist which always hovers before my eyes both night and day seems always to be approaching white rather than black; and upon the eyes turning, it admits a minute quantity of light as if through a crack.
      • Wilson AN

      The Theories.

      How have these signs and symptoms been interpreted? Several theories have been proposed; some are reasonable, and others are ridiculous. Among the latter, perhaps the most egregious is the proposition by Mutschmann,
      • Mutschmann H
      a historian and not a physician, who concluded that Milton was an albino. In an excellent article in 1930, Sorsby
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      summarized the response of most Milton students. He criticized Mutschmann's assertions and stated that they were
      part and parcel of a theory…that Milton was a physical and moral degenerate, and that all his life and work was only a striving after power, that he was a potential criminal and kept out of criminal activities by his cowardice, and so on and so forth…. Mutschmann has…reared a colossal superstructure of albinism—and as if it were a natural corollary—of physical and moral degeneracy….there is no disproving Mutschmann's evidence as to Milton's albinism, for there is no evidence to consider.
      D.J. Wood,
      • Wood DJ
      The blindness of John Milton.
      from Cape Town, South Africa, agreed with Sorsby but was more succinct; he dismissed Mutschmann's theory as “weird.” Another untenable diagnosis was proposed by Saurat and Cabannes
      • Saurat D
      • Cabannes C
      Milton devant la médecine.
      in 1924; they built a case that Milton had congenital syphilis. The assessment of Sorsby
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      again seems valid: Such a belief certainly lacks nothing in boldness…. In a world where everything is possible, this of course cannot be ruled out, though most oculists expect a different type of clinical picture for congenital syphilis….A rather less painfully laboured case could be made out for acquired syphilis—less painfully laboured but no less obviously impossible.
      Chronic glaucoma has been proposed by several prominent scholars, including Stern
      • Stern A
      in 1879, Hirschberg

      Hirschberg J. Geschichte der Augenheilkunde. Graefe-Saemisch-Hess Handbuch der Gesamten Augenheilkunde. 2nd rev ed. 1914; 14 (4 Abteil, 3 Buch): 146 (footnote 2)

      in 1914, and Wilmer
      • Wilmer WH
      The blindness of Milton.
      in 1933. The evidence for this theory, however, is unconvincing. Chronic glaucoma is usually not accompanied with ocular or cephalgic pain or with any noticeable symptoms. Additionally, the temporal visual field loss described by Milton is atypical of that found in glaucoma, which usually is associated initially with nasal scotomas or field defects around the center of fixation. The symptom that Milton noted in his letter to Philaras of seeing a candle obscured by a rainbow suggests corneal edema, which can occur in angle-closure glaucoma, but the rest of the history and symptoms does not correspond.
      Retinal detachments as the cause for Milton's blindness were first suggested by Dufour
      • Dufour M
      Milton's blindness.
      in 1909. He outlined the key symptoms: (1) a dimness of the visual field coming on first on the left side and then at the top; the sensation of steam before the eyes, showing the well-known picture of the narrowing of the visual field from above (or from the top). (2) The deformed character and mobility of the objects. (3) The subjective sensations of light, which persist even after the loss of sight.His assessment was as follows: “These symptoms lead undoubtedly to the conclusion of a detached retina…” Dr. Wood
      • Wood DJ
      The blindness of John Milton.
      agreed; he wrote in 1935 that he had “seen a case where the patient used the very words of Milton, though not in Latin.”
      The most recent theory to be proposed and the one that is accepted by Wilson
      • Wilson AN
      in his recent biography of Milton implicates an intracranial tumor as the cause of the poet's blindness. In the Proceedings of the Cardiff Medical Society,
      • Rogers L
      The light that failed.
      Lambert Rogers, who at the time was vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, elaborated on a case that he had previously described briefly in 1936
      • Rogers L
      John Milton's blindness: a suggested diagnosis.
      and in 1949;
      • Rogers L
      John Milton's blindness: a suggested diagnosis.
      the patient was a 41-year-old man who on first examination was blind in the left eye and had only a small residual field nasally in the right eye. The patient's vision had first begun to fail about 3 years previously, beginning in the right eye. He described seeing a halo or a hazy ball of light around a source of illumination, and he experienced phosphenes, photophobia, retrobulbar pain, headaches, and nausea. A craniotomy was done, and a craniopharyngioma about the size of an egg from a pigeon was removed. Because of the remarkable similarity between the history and symptoms of his patient with those reported by Milton, Rogers hypothesized that the poet suffered from a craniopharyngioma that “affected the adjacent floor of the third ventricle and the hypothalamic region.” In addition to providing an explanation for Milton's visual loss, a chiasmal tumor perhaps also could account for the period in Milton's life when he turned his attention from writing poetry to writing vituperative diatribes. In his biography of Milton, Pattison
      • Pattison M
      described this change as “the awful majesty of Milton descends from the empyrean throne of contemplation to use the language of the gutter and the fish-market.” Rogers postulated that the tumor spontaneously involuted after blindness was complete, and Milton then resumed the higher calling of writing poetry. Rogers also speculated that a craniopharyngioma may have caused pituitary dysfunction that in the poet's early years could have accounted for his feminine appearance, which earned him the unflattering sobriquet of the “Lady of Christ's Coll.”
      The theory of a craniopharyngioma has several lacunae. First, although the history of Rogers' patient matches that of Milton almost exactly, for a craniopharyngioma to behave in such a manner would be extremely atypical. I queried a dozen experienced neurosurgeons and neuro-ophthalmologists about their experiences with patients who had this tumor, and none of them believed that craniopharyngioma was a likely diagnosis. Second, Milton's behavior and critical writings seem understandable when the circumstances are considered: in his personal life, his first marriage began inauspiciously, and in his public life, he was a key intellectual figure in the English Civil War, which to him was a sacred confrontation that required his skills and duty. Third, the spontaneous involution of a craniopharyngioma large enough to cause bilateral blindness as well as endocrinologic abnormalities would be rare indeed. Fourth, minimal evidence suggests pituitary dysfunction. For instance, Milton fathered a child by his second wife after he was blind in both eyes, an event that seems unlikely if he had had a hormonal disturbance. Finally, and least important, the portrait that was included in Rogers' article to illustrate the feminine features of the young Milton is not of the poet but rather is of an anonymous young man of that era, according to C.P. Courtney, librarian at Christ's College, Cambridge, where the painting is on display (personal communication, July 17, 1991).

      CONCLUSION

      I believe that the craniopharyngioma theory is apocryphal, and I favor the diagnosis of bilateral retinal detachments as the most likely cause of Milton's blindness. Sorsby
      • Sorsby A
      On the nature of Milton's blindness.
      presented no definite conclusion in his scholarly review of the subject in 1930, but he suggested that if the “natural weakness” of Milton's eyes was myopia, then this disorder would lend further credence to the retinal theory. Myopia is a predisposing factor for detachments of the retina; this tendency is probably related to an abnormally long axis of the globe that may cause increased vitreous traction on the underlying retina. Whether “excessive” reading during childhood may lead to a progression of myopia has been speculated and debated for many years. According to Dr. Brian Curtin, whose book The Myopias is the definitive work on the subject, dysfunctional accommodation from reading can indeed be a cause of myopia (personal communication, Feb. 4, 1991). From an early age, Milton studied long into the night; perhaps this activity facilitated the development of myopia in eyes that later suffered retinal detachments. Dufour
      • Dufour M
      Milton's blindness.
      thought so and wrote, “…we might diagnose his case more correctly than did the doctors of his day; but, alas! very little better than they, could we cure him?” The answer today is most likely “yes.” One wonders, however, whether Milton, with eyesight intact, would still have been able to perceive the “still, small voice” of the Muse.

      REFERENCES

      1. Bush D The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton. Houghton Mifflin, Boston1965 (a) 190; (b) 197; (c) 257
        • Wilson AN
        The Life of John Milton. Oxford University Press, Oxford (England)1983 (a) 63; (b) 104; (c) 181; (d) 182
        • Pattison M
        Milton. Harper & Brothers, New York1902 (a) 105–106; (b) 107; (c) 108
        • Masson D
        Cited by Brown EG. Milton's Blindness. Columbia University Press, New York1934: 66
        • Martin JR
        The Portrait of John Milton at Princeton and Its Place in Milton Iconography. Princeton University Library, Princeton (NJ)1961: 5-6
      2. Aubrey J. Cited by Sorsby A.7b

        • Sorsby A
        On the nature of Milton's blindness.
        Br J Ophthalmol. 1930; 14 (a) 340; (b) 343; (c) 342–343; (d) 349–350; (e) 348–349: 339-354
        • Mutschmann H
        Milton's Eyesight and the Chronology of His Works. Haskell House, New York1971
        • Wood DJ
        The blindness of John Milton.
        S Afr Med J. 1935; 9: 791-795
        • Saurat D
        • Cabannes C
        Milton devant la médecine.
        J Med Bordeaux. 1924; : 7-13
        • Stern A
        Milton und Seine Zeit. Leipzig (Germany). Verlag von Dunckner & Humblot, 1879: 93
      3. Hirschberg J. Geschichte der Augenheilkunde. Graefe-Saemisch-Hess Handbuch der Gesamten Augenheilkunde. 2nd rev ed. 1914; 14 (4 Abteil, 3 Buch): 146 (footnote 2)

        • Wilmer WH
        The blindness of Milton.
        Bull Inst Hist Med. 1933; 1: 85-106
        • Dufour M
        Milton's blindness.
        Ophthalmoscope. 1909; 7: 599-600
        • Rogers L
        The light that failed.
        Proc Cardiff Med Soc. 1954–1955; : 2-9
        • Rogers L
        John Milton's blindness: a suggested diagnosis.
        BMJ. 1936; 2: 1275
        • Rogers L
        John Milton's blindness: a suggested diagnosis.
        J Hist Med. 1949; 4: 468-471