‘On Time’ by John Milton is a twenty-two line, single stanza poem which follows a consistent pattern of alternating groups of four lines. At its full length the lines follow the rhyming pattern of, ababcddceeffgghhiijkkj. A reader should note that while Milton uses a variety of ending sounds in this work, he has chosen to repeat each one. This is in an effort to make sure the poem is unified in its structural sounds, but also varied in how that structure appears. While reading On Time one will be unable to predict in what order the rhymes will come, or if at some point they will stop all together.
Summary of On Time
‘On Time’ by John Milton describes the one element of human existence which must be extinguished for a truly utopian world to exist.
The speaker begins this piece by directing his words to “Time.” This entity is the one which the speaker believes is the most troubling for humans. He wishes that it would speed up, consume all the negativity in the world, and then destroy itself. If this could happen, the human race would finally be happy. There would no need for vain wants or desires, all people would find eternal life.
In the concluding lines of On Time the speaker makes clear that the life humans would now be living would be as if God had come to Earth. All would be in Heaven, having conquered “Death,” “Time,” and “Chance.”
Although the poem is quoted in full below, you can read On Time here at poets.org.
Analysis of On Time
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Milton’s speaker begins this piece by addressing the force which is the main subject of the poem, “Time.” It is clear from the first line that the speaker is going to be considering “Time” as an entity with its own abilities and means of determination. The poet has chosen to capitalize the word “Time,” to highlight this fact. In ‘On Time,’ time is not something that just happens to everyone, but something that acts upon everyone.
The first thing he asks of “Time” is that it “Fly.” He is clearly unhappy with the way that it influences the world and he spends the rest of the poem spelling out why this is, and what he would have “Time” do. The next lines of On Time describe what the speaker desires. He wants “Time” to“Fly,” or move quickly, to the end of its “race.” He asks that it “Call” on the hours of life which pass slowly, and speed them up. The world has been progressing at a “heavy” pace, as if plummeting endlessly towards the ground.
The final line of this section concludes by telling “Time” that it should “glut” its self until it is full. He hopes that with the speeding up of days, that it will take all that it can take until its “womb” is full.
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
In the next set of four lines of On Time the speaker makes clear to his readers, and to “Time,” why he hopes that it will eat all it can eat. If it does as he asks, it will have taken all that is “false and vain / And merely mortal dross.” Humankind will lose things by this great devouring— but they are not things of any real worth. They are only what is fake and worthless, the worries of a mortal race.
As if to taunt “Time,” the speaker continues on to say that after it has done this, humans will have lost “So little.” There is nothing for humankind to fret over, just as there is little “Time” has gained by this act. “Time” can take nothing from the world which is truly worth keeping.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
In lines 9-12 the speaker proceeds to the end of his great plan. There is a happy ending in sight for humanity once all his plans have come to pass. There will be a future world, after “Time” has “entomb’d” every “bad” thing on the Earth and has nothing left to eat but its own “greedy self.” All people will live in “long Eternity” and “bliss.” There will no longer be the pressure of time passing, and instead each individual person will be greeted with “an individual kiss” of welcome from “Eternity.”
It is clear that the speaker considers “Time” a corrupting force and that without it, humans would return to a state of being that was not bound in by wants.
Lines 13- 18
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
The poem has reached its climax in this section as the speaker comes to his main points about what should be important in life.
Once the Earth has been cleared of the the influence of “Time” the new entity of “Joy shall overtake” the human race like “a flood.” All previous depressions and negative thoughts and experiences will be swept away permanently. The new most powerful elements in the world will be everything that is “sincerely good / And perfectly divine.” Nothing will be without grace; nor will the world lack “Truth, and Peace, and Love.” These elements of the new Earth will “shine” out everywhere.
The speaker continues on to state that all this will be oriented around God and the “supreme Throne.” The sight of all of this goodness will only bring on more joy and “happy-making” moments.
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
The final section of On Time states that all that was spoken of above will only happen when “our heav’nly-guided soul[s]” will leave “this Earth” and go into the “Stars.” The narrator of this poem is hoping that, through the purging of unhappiness, a Heaven-like world will come to exist Earth. The speaker has been edging “Time” forward in an attempt to sooner meet with God, but not in death— in life.
At that point, when humankind is with God, they will have conquered everything. Heaven will have come to Earth with no need of “Death.” There will be no “Chance” to fear, or more importantly, “Time” to worry over.