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On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three

by John Milton

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

Milton is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential English poets, ranking with Chaucer and Shakespeare. He wrote both poetry and prose, and in poetry wrote pastoral, elegy, epic, drama, sonnet, and other kinds of verse. His most famous and influential work is the epic Paradise Lost, which has been at the center of English literary criticism since Milton’s day. His sonnets have received less critical attention. Lord Macaulay, in his essay “Milton” published in 1860, differed from most critics in that he valued the sonnets highly. He found that “traces . . . of the peculiar character of Milton may be found in all of his works; but it is most strongly displayed in the Sonnets. Those remarkable poems have been undervalued.” Macaulay links the sonnets firmly to Milton’s life and character, a view that seems especially true of “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three.”

“On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty- Three” is fairly straightforward until the last three lines. Many explications of this section have been attempted. K. Svendsen, in The Explicator, offers three interpretations, but prefers the following: “All that matters is whether I have grace to use my ripeness in accordance with the will of God as one ever in his sight.” D. C. Dorian, writing in another issue of The Explicator, differs, thinking that “ever” can mean “eternity” and paraphrases the section this way: “All time is, if I have grace to use it so, as eternity in God’s sight.”

Another way to interpret these lines is with recourse to the manuscript, which has no punctuation. Instead of reading line 12 as if it had two subjects (toward which Time and the will of heaven lead me) one can read “will of heaven” as the subject of “is” (the will of heaven is all). In that case, line 14 could variously take as antecedent “I” (the will of heaven is all, if I, being watched by God as always, have grace to treat it as if it is all) or more loosely the using of his lot (the will of heaven is all, if I have grace to act as if that is so, remaining in God’s sight). Other interpretations are of course possible; several are noted in A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton by A. S. P. Woodhouse and Douglas Bush.

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