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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonnet VII: How soon hath Time, the Subtle Thief of Youth - John Milton

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arriv'd so near;
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n;
All is, if I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.


I wonder if Milton, who had just turned 24 when he wrote this poem, could possibly have imagined that he would go on to be one of the most hated men in Europe for his political writings (justification of regicide does not make one a popular man), the inspiration for the founding documents of the USA, and the blind poet of the great English epic(s) Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.  Certainly, this poem is full of his apprehension at how fast years are passing.  He's an adult, 24 now, but he feels like on the inside, he is not yet "ripe."

As many young people, myself included, can relate, it becomes clear that there is no point at which you are suddenly an adult.  To my students, I am exactly what they think of when they think of an adult.  Yet, to me, college doesn't seem far removed, I still think about spending time with my friends, and so on.  It seems that indeed "my semblance might deceive the truth."  I know my students think I'm in my 30s, as do many of my co-workers, so my semblance there is definitely deceptive.

I think it's interesting to note the pious humility Milton injects into the end of the sonnet.  "All is, if I have grace to use it so As ever in my great Task-Master's eye."  Milton felt that all he had, all talent, all potential, were granted him by grace of God.  He did not know where fate would take him, nor Time, but he was confident that no matter what it was, "however mean or high" that it would be the "will of Heav'n."

As a personal note, I don't find this poem particularly interesting or rewarding as poetry, but rather for the subject matter.  It's hard to imagine the megalithic figure Milton as a young, scared man afraid of how fast time passes and what he might do with his life.  Formally, it's a Petrarchan sonnet, and Milton has to truncate many words in order to make it fit within the formal structure.  The rhymes are not particularly striking either, and apart from the last three lines, which are quite nice, it's not a particularly satisfying poem to read.  Still, those last three lines echo to me what the mature Milton would later achieve; pious writings that struggle deeply with the sense of the individual's place in an increasingly connected world.

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