‘How Soon Hath Time’ is one of the most intriguing and poignant classic poems. The basic premises are time and its cavalier indifference to individualistic attitude irrespective altogether. The poem owing to its strength and vigor has stood the test of millennials as a firm ode to Puritan age poetry among other notables such as ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Samson Agonistes’, and ‘Lycidas’. The poem was a vital literary work in a long movement of poetry stirring in England.
This poem starts on a tragic note with John looking in retrospect at his years gone by, with his accomplishments running thin as opposed to years usurped. His belief in God remains shaky as his two poems indicate, furthered along by existential crisis externally.
John Milton, the poet of the Puritan age, authored the magnum opus ‘Paradise Lost’. All in all, he composed twenty-four sonnets in their entirety. He invested six crucial years in studying works of notable poets such as Petrarch and Virgil, being an ardent devotee of Yester greats.
Explore Sonnet 7: How Soon Hath Time
‘How Soon Hath Time’ by John Milton is a thought-provoking poem that describes Milton’s repentance for his inability to achieve his intellectual goals in a time-bound manner.
This poem is a mildish autobiography. As the octave progresses, Milton feels betrayed by age and life on the whole during his 23rd year. Enveloped in this melancholia and frustration, the sonnet begins on a tragic note. Suffering from a typified moral epiphany, he views time as a cavalier bystander, robbing him of his youthful years as a quarter of his life has whizzed past in an apparent blur.
Moreover, his depressive bent is furthered by the fact that he may have aged over time, yet his mental immaturity is still intact as well as being a noble underachiever. Feeling under-accomplished is a huge moral blow for him as he continues his monotonous diatribe.
Being a young, conflicted individual, he feels god has tremendous faith in him, guiding him gradually to his eventual path of greatness. However, this sense of foreboding is literally a source of constant agitation for our under-achieving protagonist.
Form and Structure
The Miltonic sonnet ‘How Soon Hath Time’ is composed in traditional Petrarchan style, keeping in conjunction with iambic pentameter, analogous to William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Adhering strictly to form and meter, his poetic emotions remain tightly bottled up. Every verse consists of five beats in itself. Milton has slightly bent the rules by shortening the lengths of the words so as to save the poem’s form.
The structure of this poem is unique in itself. Each stanza of the poem consists of four verses, fitting the iambic pentameter aptly. It succeeds in garnishing cohesive thoughts in their entirety. The biblical connotations towards the concluding verses strengthen the airy symbolism in initially lighter verses.
The rhyming pattern is slightly off the charts with the initial eight lines adhering to the ABBA pattern, while the remaining verses are adherent to the CDEDCE pattern. The rhyming patterns are coherent with diverging belief systems.
Let’s have a look at the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines:
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, (A)
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year! (B)
My hasting days fly on with full career, (B)
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th. (A)
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth (A)
That I to manhood am arriv’d so near; (B)
And inward ripeness doth much less appear, (B)
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th. (A)
In these lines, “youth” rhymes with “shew’th”, while “truth” rhymes with “endu’th”. Similarly, “year”, “career”, “near”, and “appear” also rhyme together. The initial eight verses reflect doubt and melancholia.
The rhyme scheme of the sestet is described below:
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, (C)
It shall be still in strictest measure ev’n (D)
To that same lot, however mean or high, (E)
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n: (D)
All is, if I have grace to use it so (C)
As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye. (E)
In the sestet, “slow” rhymes with “so”, “ev’n” and “Heav’n” rhyme together, and “high” rhymes with “eye”. The last six verses reflect resolve and immediacy.
Milton’s selection of themes for poems differs largely from his contemporaries. Popular contemporary themes included love and God; he opted for rather pedantic themes such as personal issues, politics, and even friendship. In ‘How Soon Hath Time,’ he centers his thoughts on time, youth, personal issues, and achievement. One of the important themes of this piece is time. Here, Milton compares “Time” to a “thief of youth”. This metaphor reveals what his pain point was. The fleeting nature of youth is not only his concern, it was the concern of some of the greatest poets of English literature.
He introduces the theme of personal achievement and goals in this poem. That’s why it speaks on the very nature of time, youth, achievement, and life’s goals from a subjective point of view. The theme of achievement (in others’ case over-achievement) is another important aspect of this piece. Milton thinks what he has achieved is of lesser importance than the goal he has in mind. It hints at the composition of his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’.
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
John Milton was a staunchly religious person, considering himself a missionary to God’s noble cause. Awaiting divine intervention is evident in his first lines of Sonnet 7 where he laments, “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,” as well as in another sonnet released after his subsequent blindness, “When I consider how my light is spent.”
He awaits divine inspiration in his poetic publications. As the poem starts in a lamentable tone, he begins with “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth.” He feels betrayed by the speed at which youth and time have left him with years past, not recording achievement of substantial value. Career-wise and artistically, he has yet to produce his masterpiece and make a stamp on history.
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Most critics and contemporaries would deem him as impatient and ungrateful. Having accomplished more than his contemporaries and future critics (having command of Greek, Latin, English, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Aramaic, and Syriac), and studied poetry linguistics for six years privately shows his apparent humility and measurement criteria. Only a handful of writers have published life-long classics at an early age including John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Arthur Rimbaud, while most others published their epic works in later years.
Yet in a different poem, he touches upon this aspect. In his lyrical poem ‘Lycidas’, dedicated to his drowned colleague, he continues in his lamentable note again:
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Briefly touching that aspect of his immaturity, “before the mellowing year,” he deems himself incompetent and lacking in poetic prowess even at a ripe age of 29 years. With his self-established high aesthetic standards, he ardently aspires to attain them within his lifetime.
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.
This is a direct linkage to his collegiate years where his feeble physical structure was deemed as girlish and feminine, resulting in him earning the title of, “The Lady of Christ’s”. With a feminine overall outlook, he continues to underestimate himself in comparison to contemporaries having accomplished much more in his prime age.
In conclusion, he ends his tragically-toned lament with having faith in God for assisting him in his quest for greatness. In another poem, ‘On His Blindness,’ he lovingly accepts God’s will in his divine scheme of things, bestowing his fellow men as he pleases. As he indicates, “my great taskmaster” has sealed his fate. Milton’s monotonous tragic sonnet has tones of ambition, religious bent, and a maestro in making with his magnum opus ‘Paradise Lost’ released afterward.
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.
This is a direct indication of Jesus’s parable for God’s reward for all those reporting for duty on time and slightly late on time. God, being all the knowing and kind, views his pupils as equals. It’s also an indirect attack on God’s double standards ever so delicately.
Milton mentions this discrepancy in his concluding lines, albeit with a certain delicacy, “If I have grace to use it so.” He creates some ambiguity regarding his poetic grace. The grace could be within him or God-gifted. Using the word “have”, he’s conflicted on whether his poetic talents are at his own command or God’s will.
This shows slightly negativistic attribution in ‘How Soon Hath Time’ is later found in ‘Paradise Lost’, where Eve’s epithet for God is “Our Great Forbidder”. It shows veiled criticism of God’s so-called willpower and judgment traits.
Milton was an ardent advocate of this ideology in his lifetime. At a young age, he was conflicted about God’s role in life and its consequent play with freedom and free will, obedience and justice, flowing freely in Milton’s published works.
The primary function of John Milton’s sonnet, ‘How Soon Hath Time,’ composed in the 1630s is based on the premise of time passing speedily, with little accomplished. With 24 years stacked behind him, it’s a wake-up call for future generations to instill a sense of wakefulness and show some regard to precious time. As a result, it’s a lesson-based poem for youngsters to make something of life.
Milton wasn’t very fond of his educational achievements, culminating in his dissatisfaction with his present achievements, penning a poem detailing his trials and tribulations. As a matter of fact, the poem was composed subsequently to his earning of a Masters’ degree in Cambridge from Christ’s College.
Furthering his academic woes was his friction with his teacher, resulting in academic dismissal. Upon his return, his disgruntlement continued with the course curriculum, recorded by key historian William Riley in his book “Milton: A Biography”.
As the poem toys with his educational disappointment, hidden in verse, “My hasting days fly on with full career,/ But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.” He feels he has attained little from these educational institutions and their so-called educational value. Nevertheless, he hopes God to have better in store for him.
The main idea of the sonnet revolves around the paucity of time in one’s life. In the case of the speaker, John Milton, and his prowess, one life’s time is not enough to reach intellectual heights. That’s why 23 years old Milton thinks that there is more to achieve than what he has already accomplished.
The meaning of the title ‘How Soon Hath Time’ deals with how time as a “subtle thief of youth” has stolen Milton’s intellectual “wings” at the age of twenty-three. Through this sonnet, he clarifies what he has achieved is nothing in comparison to what he has dreamt of.
The poet has got the “inward ripeness” or the time needed for his overall intellectual development in the “strictest measure”. Everyone gets what is needed for their development in equal amounts from God. As the speaker cannot utilize it fully, he feels quite dejected.
Milton was 23 years old when he wrote this poem. The line, “Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!” refers to his age.
The speaker of ‘How Soon Hath Time’ feels low about himself for not being able to create a great body of work (a reference to his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’). He says some of the “timely-happy spirits” achieved great things at an early age while he is still struggling to pen down his masterpiece.
In Milton’s Sonnet VII, the speaker’s chief concern is about accomplishing his goal as early as he can. He knows youth is fleeting. If he fails to utilize the vigor of his age, he doubts whether it is possible to have it done in the future.
In this line, “But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th” two metaphors. The first one is of the “bud” which refers to the early signs of greater achievement. The “blossom” stands for an accomplishment. Besides, Milton says he is in his “late spring”. As he has not accomplished his goal in his youth, he thinks he might be nearing the late springs of his youth. So, through this line, he says that he has not achieved any feats that distinctly mark his intellectual prowess and youthful vigor.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes showcased in John Milton’s poem, ‘How Soon Hath Time’.
- ‘Time’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – It’s one of the best-known poems of P.B. Shelley. This poem talks of the perilous nature of the sea and explores the “Ocean of Time”. Read more Percy Bysshe Shelley poems.
- ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – It’s one of the famous poems of S.T. Coleridge and concerned with the progression of time. Explore more poems of S.T. Coleridge.
- On Time by John Milton – This poem describes the one element of human existence which must be extinguished for a truly utopian world to exist, pointing directly at “Time”. Read more John Milton poems.
- Time Is by Henry van Dyke – In this poem, Dyke goes beyond the scientific definition of time and explores the subjectivity of this idea. Explore more poems by Henry van Dyke.