On Light. Prolegomenon.

Of course, one need not have eyes to see.

The familiar hymn “Amazing Grace” rejoices in the experience of grace even in the life of “a wretch like me.” It’s as though one had been blind; with salvation, one “now can see.” I must confess that both the tune and the words are overly-familiar to me, yet it all felt new and fresh when I came upon a rendition by Doc Watson shortly after hearing of his death last May. I suppose much of its poignancy lies in the awareness that Watson himself was blind, having lost his vision in his infancy due to an eye infection. He introduces the tune hauntingly on harmonica. Then it’s his voice, both alone  and  joined with the audience’s collective singing.

John Milton lost his eyesight relatively late in life, at around age forty-four. His blindness is the subject of his Sonnet XVI, where he laments being bereft of that one faculty which he feels is his only means of serving God. He is consoled (as I read the poem) by grace:

                  ….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.

He claims only to “stand and wait,” yet in the very utterance of the poem Milton acts, singing God’s praises. Perhaps this is what “waiting” consists in.

In a manner of speaking, Bob Dylan also “stands and waits” in the song “Blind Willie McTell.” In doing so he sees, hears, and smells the past:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships

These impressions provide part of the context for the speaker’s meditations:

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.

Though “gazing out the window,” the speaker is searching, looking, wondering. What he sees, or thinks he sees, is that “power and greed and corruptible seed” are “all that there is.” What he knows is that Blind Willie McTell can see into the heart of pain and sorrow and “can sing the blues” like no one else.

Gazing, standing, waiting, singing the blues, singing praises. Varieties of seeing, varieties of bearing light.

[This is the first of what I think will be a few more sets of thoughts about seeing and light and eyes.]

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