Sola Fide: Clues to Milton’s Path to Salvation in Sonnet 19
Scholars and pseudo-scholars have analyzed Milton’s Sonnet 19 for 350 years, and most have gotten it wrong. Taken in the context of open, sometimes even violent hostilities between Catholics and Protestants, the poem might be read as a statement of Milton’s position on salvation, which is essentially sola fide, justification by faith alone, as formulated in the sixteenth century by Martin Luther and John Calvin. The essence of the sonnet is, we conclude, not Milton’s blindness, neither physical nor spiritual, but an affirmation of his belief that mankind is saved by faith, not works. The study uses close reading of the fourteen lines of the sonnet and finds, as many have seen, two distinct parts. First, an octet of self-pity complains that the Maker who endowed the narrator with the gift of poetry may chastise him for not using that gift to serve the needs of that Maker. The Parable of the Talents is clearly the reference. Second, a sestet of accommodation relieves the narrator (and the reader) of the angst of the dreaded outcome mentioned in the Parable. It is the fourteenth line, however, that tells the tale. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the affirmation of sola fide.