Every so often, Milton crops up in ways that surprise even the most dedicated Miltonist. In remarks at a “Joining Forces” event on 30 April, Vice President Biden quoted Milton as he honored military families:
But it’s not just about the returning veterans. We know there are families, and particularly you men and women in uniform know the sacrifices your families make to allow you to serve. The English poet John Milton once said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” And literally, hundreds of thousands, millions of wives, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — they’ve stood and waited. And we owe them as well, because they have served as well.*
Milton’s words come from Sonnet 19, “When I consider how my light is spent,” in which Milton imagines God coming to him for an account of what he has done so far with his life, and especially since the onset of his blindness at the age of forty-three. At the end of the poem, Milton dismisses the image of an impatient God by recognizing that all creation — in idleness or movement — serve that higher will. The “taskmaster” of Sonnet 7 is mollified by the acknowledgtment that even those who wait are serving.
This unexpected bit of Milton hit home today, since over the past couple days my family has once again packed out our house to move yet again — and I was (again) unable to be there to help them.
The Vice President’s use of Milton’s words aptly characterizes the service of our military families by tapping into Milton’s idea of unceasing service. However, the service our military families differs a little from Milton’s grand notion. For one thing, there is little of Milton’s uncomfortable suggestion that these services might be unconscious or unwilling (the “yoke” of Sonnet 7, the service of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost), although my daughters often remind me that they didn’t enlist. Finally, while the service of military families may indeed be all-encompassing, they do not often have the luxury to “only stand and wait.” – May 1
* “REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT THE VICE PRESIDENT THE FIRST LADY, DR. JILL BIDEN AND PETTY OFFICER DAVID PADILLA AT JOINING FORCES EMPLOYMENT EVENT” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/04/30/remarks-president-vice-president-first-lady-dr-jill-biden-and-petty-of-0