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    When an artist loses vision

    How gifted individuals may express impact of losing sight


    Milton is thought to have had either bilateral retinal detachments or glaucoma, and he spent the last 20 years of life without vision. He remained an acclaimed author, dictating his verse to scribes.3

    Milton addressed the topic of his blindness through the biblical character of Samson in the poem Samson Agonistes. Samson, you may recall, was betrayed by the temptress Delilah, imprisoned, blinded by his captors, and chained to giant columns.

    The suffering Samson describes his blindness as being similar to a solar eclipse: “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,/Irrevocably dark, total eclipse.”

    Once his hair regrew, Samsom used his regained strength to pull down the columns to which he was chained, ending the lives of his enemies as well as his own and his suffering with blindness.

    Handel, in his opera entitled “Samson,” has his lead character describe his blindness using a similar experience (a solar eclipse) and similar words: “Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!/All dark amidst the blaze of noon!”

    Bach, who only lived a few months following his disastrous couching procedures, apparently did not have the opportunity to use his art to describe the experience of becoming blind.

    Much has been written about these great artists and their visual challenges. What to me is less clear is the inner reaction of these gifted individuals to the challenge of losing their sight.

    While a recent poll revealed the possibility of losing sight to be the number one health-related fear of Americans,4 my imagination causes me to think that artists might experience that loss in particularly dramatic fashion and might be able express the impact in a special way.



    1. David, Mendel & Wolff. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York; W.W. Norton and Company. 1998, p. 188.

    2. Hicks, Anthony 2013. “Handel, Georg Frideric”, Groves Music Online, Oxford University Press.

    3. Sorsby A. 1930. The Nature of Milton’s Blindness. British Journal of Ophthalmology. 14:339-54.

    4. Public Attitudes About Eye and Vision Health.

    Scott AW, Bressler NM, Ffolkes S, Wittenborn JS, Jorkasky J.

    JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134:1111-1118.


    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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