How Soon Hath Time

by John Milton

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Discuss the theme of John Milton's sonnet "How Soon Hath Time."

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I think the biggest theme of this excellent sonnet is the way that the world looks on achievement and expect visible signs of having achieved something or done something with our lives, whereas actually this sonnet argues that "achievement" and "growth" can result from internal and intellectual pursuits.

If we have a closer look at the wording of this sonnet, it begins with a recognition of how quickly time flies and how the speaker has already passed his twenty-third year:

How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth,

Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!

However, what concerns the speaker above all is the way in which in his "late spring" there is no evidence of having achieved or done something with his life: "no bud nor blossom sheweth." Nevertheless, the speaker argues that he has achieved "inward ripeness" in spite of the lack of evidence that he can point towards to suggest that he has been engaged in meaningful pursuits. The poem ends with a statement of belief in a God who has a perfect plan for each stage of our lives and can see both the inner "ripeness" and the outer:

All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great taskmaster's eye.

Thus this poem is really about our lives and what we do with them. Whether we have accomplished tangible exploits that others can look to or not, this poem argues that we must not neglect our own "inner" maturity and that we should have confidence in God's plan for our lives rather than our own plan or the plans of others for us.

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The person who is talking in the sonnet has just had his 24th birthday and is thinking about how quickly the first "three and twentieth" years went by. The speaker feels that the period of youth in his life is now finished and his time of adulthood is at hand, even if he doesn't outwardly look like an adult.

subtle thief of youth My hasting days fly on with full career
I to manhood am arrived so nearinward ripeness doth much less appear
Now, in adulthood, the speaker is acknowledging that his life as an adult has begun and that there is no way of predicting how long it may last or when it might end: be it less or more, or soon or slow The determination of when he dies is up to God (his "great Task-Master")
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Many young aspiring writers expect too much of themselves. Typically they graduate from college at around the age of twenty-two. They consider themselves "educated" and ready to start earning their livings as professional freelance writers. Graduating from college is just morphing from being a senior in one college to becoming an entering freshman at a higher college called The School of Hard Knocks. Milton lived centuries ago, but he was not too much different in his aspirations and expectations from many young aspiring writers of today. Here he was at the grand old age of twenty-three. Why wasn't he producing masterpieces? For one thing, he hadn't acquired much worldly experience. His mind was saturated with reading in many different languages. He really needed ten years of maturation and worldly experience before he would have something to say.

Here is a pertinent quote from a twentieth-century motion picture about an aspiring young writer:

A writer. Silly, isn't it? You know, in college I passed for a genius. They couldn't get out the college magazine without one of my stories. Boy, was I hot, Hemingway stuff. I reached my peak when I was nineteen. Sold a piece to the Atlantic Monthly. Reprinted in the Readers' Digest. Who wants to stay in college when he's Hemingway? My mother bought me a brand new typewriter, and I moved right in on New York. Well, the first thing I wrote, that didn't quite come off. And the second, I dropped. The public wasn't ready for that one. I started a third and a fourth...only by then, somebody began to look over my shoulder and whisper, in a thin, clear voice like the E-string on a violin. Don Birnam, he'd whisper, it's not good enough. Not that way. How about a couple of drinks just to set it on its feet, huh? So I had a couple. Oh, what a great idea that was. That made all the difference. Suddenly I could see the whole thing...the tragic sweep of the great novel, beautifully proportioned. But before I could really grab it and throw it down on paper, the drinks would wear off and everything would be gone, like a mirage. Then there was despair, and a drink to counterbalance despair, and one to counterbalance the counterbalance. And I'd sit in front of that typewriter, trying to squeeze out one page that was halfway decent, and that guy would pop up again. 
From screenplay of The Lost Weekend (1945), based on the     novel by Charles R. Jackson

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This moving sonnet starts off initially as a reflection on the strange way that time has of quickly passing us by. The speaker reflects how time, whom he personifies as "the subtle thief of youth," has "stolen" his "twenty-third year." However, this leads the speaker to reflect about not just his maturity in terms of his age, but also the maturity in terms of his gifts. Thus the speaker refers to his "inward ripeness," that "timely-happy spirits endu'th." This is a clear reference to the poetic gifts that the speaker feels he has been given, though they may not have fully matured like he has in his physical body. However, above all, he entrusts his life and his poetic giftings to God, who is the source of both. Note how the sonnet ends:

All is: if I have grace to use it so,

As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.

Thus we can say that the theme of this poem is entrusting our talents and gifts into God's hands, trusting that he will develop and mature them, as well as giving us the correct time and opportunity to practise, develop and use them for His glory.

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Well, you are sixteen years old, or something like that, right? Don't feel bad for not getting it. The poem was written by a young man who was a good seven years older than you are now. Thus fret not about the fact that Milton's Sonnet 7 "ON HIS BEING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF 23" is a bit tough for you to understand.

Generally, the theme of the poem deals with age and aging. The narrator (you wouldn't be wrong if you figured it was Milton himself on or near his twenty-third birthday) is talking about being and acting his age. In the first eight lines, he says something like: My, how time flies, and here I am twenty-three already. How did that happen so fast. And, although I may not look my age:

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

nonetheles, here I am almost a man.

The last six lines are a reassurance. He realizes that whether or not he looks it, or is quite ready, he will soon enough blossom into the man and poet he has so diligently prepared himself to be.

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