How Soon Hath Time

by John Milton

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How Soon Hath Time

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, a

            Stolen 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 arrived so near, b

            And inward ripeness doth much less appear, b

            That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th a

Yet, be it less or more, or soon or slow, c

            It shall be still in strictest measure even d

            To that same lot, however mean or high, e

Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven; d

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

            As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye. e

This is a sonnet (14 lines, mostly in iambic pentameter). The rhyme scheme is marked with letters at the end of the lines. Notice how the rhyme changes when the tone of the sonnet changes - very of a sonnet.

In this sonnet, the author laments getting old. He realizes his youth is slipping way. He is growing old less on the outside but more on the inside (“my semblance might deceive the truth”). He may look young on the outside, but inside him exists an old soul. Even though the author is only 23 years old, he seems to be lamenting the power that “Time” has over him. He refers to “Time” as a “subtle thief” – personifying it throughout the sonnet. He comes to the realization, however, that Time is going to do what it will do and that he is no different than anyone else.

When the tone of the poem changes, the author concludes that no matter how soon or slow Time affects him, in the meantime, he will try to do God’s will (the great Task-Master). In the last lines, he acknowledges that Time may have power over him, but not outside of God’s control. Even Time is subject to the will of heaven.

Read about the lyric nature of Milton's poetry here on enotes.

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