How Soon Hath Time by John Milton

John Milton’s infamous literary classic, How Soon Hath Time has been analyzed from various aspects, reflecting on his mood, conflicts with beliefs, and personal shortcomings, and most of all, the expediency of time. John Milton, the poet of the Puritan age, authored the magnum opus Paradise Lost. All in all, he composed twenty-four sonnets in entirety. He invested six crucial years in studying works of notable poets such as Petrarch and Virgil, being an ardent devotee of Yester greats.

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 millenniums 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.

The 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.

How Soon Hath Time by John Milton


Poetic Form

The sonnet/ poem, How Soon Hath Time is composed in traditional Petrarchan prose, keeping in conjunction with iambic pentameter, analogous to William Shakespeare’s couplets. However, his selection of themes for poems differs largely from his contemporaries. Popular contemporary themes included love and God; John Milton opted for rather pedantic themes such as personal issues, politics, and even friendship. Adhering strictly to form and meter, his poetic emotions remain tightly bottled up.

Every verse consists of five beats in itself. John Milton has slightly bent the rules by shortening the lengths of the words so as to save the poem’s form.


Poetic Structure

Structure of John Milton’s poem, How Soon Hath Time 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 its 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 A-B-B-A pattern, while the remaining verses are adherent to C-D-E-D-C-E pattern. The rhyming patterns are coherent with diverging belief systems. Youth rhymes with ‘show’th’ while truth rhymes with ‘endueth’. Similarly, ‘appear’, ‘near’, ‘career’, and ‘year’ also rhyme together. The initial eight verses reflect doubt and melancholia, while the last six verses reflect resolve and immediacy.


Analysis of How Soon Hath Time

Stanza One

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 How Soon Hath Time 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.


Stanza Two

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-sear,
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.


Stanza Three

Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,

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.


Stanza Four

And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.

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. John Milton’s monotonous tragic sonnet has tones of ambition, religious bent, and a maestro in making with his magnum opus Paradise Lost released afterward.


Stanza Five

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,

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.


Stanza Six

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

John 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 his poem is later found in Paradise Lost poem, 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. Young Milton was conflicted about God’s role in life and its consequent play with freedom and freewill, obedience and justice, flowing freely in Milton’s published works.


Historical Perspective

The primary function of John Milton’s sonnet, How Soon Hath Time, composed in the 1630s is based on premises of time passing speedily, with little accomplished. With 24 years stacked behind John Milton, 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.

John Milton composed How Soon Hath Time as a Petrarchan sonnet. The sonnet was penned in wintery December of 1631. As a typified trait of Petrarchan sonnets, the poem’s tone shifts in terms of mood and emotions.

John 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 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’s: ‘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.


Personal Commentary

The poem is a mild-ish autobiography. As the octave progresses, John 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 John Milton 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.

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Omer Asad
Omer joined the Poem Analysis team back in November 2015. He has a keen eye for poetry and enjoys analysing them, providing his intereptation of poems from the past and present.
  • Avatar Daniel P Truitt says:

    Omar, how strange that you have forgotten to capitalize “God.” Even atheists do this. Why didn’t you, Omar?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I have gone through this and God is appropriately capitalised.

      • Excellent master piece of William Wordsworth.
        And well interpreted by Omer Asad.
        Thanks for sharing..

        • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

          I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Milton was overrated 😉

  • Need more Valuable info…Anyway Thanx to d Info…Lookin for more a information abt Words worth….

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hi there, If you click on The Hyperlink To Wordsworth you will find a wealth of his poems analysed.

  • Avatar Dr. Shashi Shekhar Pathak says:

    commedable indeed !

  • I need more poems of willam words worth

  • >

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