Coming across the line “They also serve who only stand and waited” in the well-known sonnet, a reader might wonder whether the modern tramps of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot would have been in Milton’s view the supreme servants of God. Intelligence, to prevent that murmur, would then remind the reader of Milton’s phenomenal etymological scholarship and gently suggest that one undertake keener research into the etymology of Milton’s vocabulary if one really wished to comprehend his meaning. Such research should reveal the absurdity of the waiting undertaken by Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, and the kind of active waiting Milton would want any true Christian to engage in.
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Turning as one tends to do in times of such dire need to the volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary or, if one is not a keen weight-lifter and weight-watcher, to the online version, one comes across more senses of the word than one would have ever imagined. The first few recorded have been marked with the qualification ‘obsolete’ and one has to—wait—for the sense marked ‘14 h’ before one sees exactly what it is blind Milton saw in his mind’s eye:
h. In Bible phrase, to place one’s hope in (God). Cf. WAITER 4b.
Very common in the Bible of 1611; rendering several Heb. verbs of identical meaning.
1535 COVERDALE Ps. lxi[i]. 1 My souled waited only upon God, for of him comet my helped. 1611 BIBLE Ps. xxv. 3 Let none that wait on the be ashamed. 1840 GEO. ELIOT Let. 20 July (1954) I. 58 That constant waiting on God for instruction and comfort which [the Quietists]..make the sum total of religion. 1931 J. BUCHAN Blanket of Dark xvi. 307 Be still and wait on God. 1979 R. BLYTHE View in Winter ix. 300 One of the best things which all these new changes have brought about is this notion of waiting upon God.
The line, the word, the sense, the meaning immediately become clear as crystal, and one wonders why the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did not think of including the line from Milton’s sonnet as one of the quotations of the word used in this particular sense.
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The two tramps of Beckett’s Godot would be well-advised to “Be still and wait on God” as Buchan advocated in 1931, instead of constantly physically and mentally fidgeting around as they do. One should be grateful to the Oxford English Dictionary for enabling this insight into John Milton’s sonnet, and equally grateful to Milton for providing this insight into the nothing that regularly happens while the two tramps wait (without being still and watchful) for their promised Godot. Small wonder, then, that the tramps have to keep reminding themselves every day “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow…Unless Godot comes” (124); while Milton understands that “who best/ Bear his mild yak, they serve him best.” Milton’s blind state is ‘kingly’, the tramps who can see what is without do not have the insight to look within and learn.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. London: Oxford UP, 1990.
Milton, John. “On His Blindness.” Online Resource. 2008. Web.
“Wait, v 1.” Oxford English Dictionary. Online Resource. 2008. Web.