Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990
In England, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by a phenomenal outpouring of poetic talent. The poets of this era often took older established formulas and rewrote and revised the formulas to express new, often controversial, ideas about their world. These poems were not published until many years after their composition. Instead, the poems were copied and circulated among other poets. This circulation of poems led to a competitiveness between poets, with each successive poet “playing” with the formula and content to create a new kind of poem, one that he would then pass on to his friends. This was especially true of the poetic form known as the sonnet. For instance, in John Milton’s sonnet “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” the poet uses the sonnet format to explore the passing of time and to question if he is fulfilling God’s plan or if he is wasting precious time in study that might be better devoted to writing. In using the sonnet form for such questioning, Milton is only the most recent of the Renaissance poets to appropriate and revise the traditional sonnet to serve a purpose that is very different from its traditional intent. In a sense, Milton’s use of the sonnet serves as the culmination of a creative period that saw the use of the sonnet transformed from a simple vehicle to express a lover’s lament to an elaborate and complex formula that could be used to express religious fervor, personal anguish, and the poet’s fears about life.
When Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the Italian sonnet to England early in the sixteenth century, he was importing a well-defined poetic formula that illustrated certain carefully crafted ideas. The Italian sonnet probably developed in Italy in the thirteenth century but was adapted by Petrarch a century later to express a lover’s lament. The formula is simple, and few poets deviated from either the Italian rhyme scheme or the Petrarchan content. The rhyme consists of fourteen lines, with the first eight lines forming an octave, abbaabba, that presents either a narrative or raises a question. The octave is followed by a sestet, efgefg, that either makes an abstract comment upon the narrative or offers a solution for the problem. The traditional devices included elaborate conceits and exaggerated comparisons that expressed a lover’s beauty and charm and her cruelty to her lover. These sonnets always emphasized the suffering of the forlorn lover at the hands of his cruel mistress. Wyatt’s “The Long Love That in My Thought Doth Harbor” (1540) is typical of this style. In this poem, love is compared to war, and the lover is cold and distant. In another Wyatt poem, “Whoso List to Hunt” (1540), the object of the hunt is a woman, thought to be Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry the VIII’s wives. The woman is even more objectified than normal and is diminished in her role as prey. Of course, she is also unavailable and thus cold to his pleas, and so the poet is even more dejected and rejected than usual.
Initially, these Italian sonnets were used to express an abject suitor’s desire or love for a reluctant woman. Love was often painful and explored through elaborate conceits. A favorite comparison was love as a battle or war, or as illness or pain. But, it did not take very long for English Renaissance poets to deviate from this formula. For example, William Shakespeare avoids the traditional Italian pattern in Romeo and Juliet (1595). In act I, scene v, lines 90 to 103, Shakespeare’s conceit involves saints and the kissing of palms as lips. Instead of the typical Petrarchan declaration of how hopeless his love and how cold his lover, Shakespeare uses logic and reason in his argument. This sonnet also provides for two speakers. Romeo speaks the first four lines, Juliet the next four, and then the two lovers alternate the next six lines. This deviation from typical sonnet style and content was not unusual for Shakespeare. Many of his sonnets deal with topics other than love and desire. He also explores issues such as time and death, in which he presents solutions such as immortalizing oneself in verse or in the creation of children to outwit death. Of course, Shakespeare also wrote of the pain of love in sonnets, but he addressed many of his sonnets to a young man, a departure from sixteenth century norms in which a woman was typically both the subject and the audience for a sonnet. By the end of the sixteenth century, a new English sonnet had been created to join the more familiar Italian format. The English sonnet contained three quatrains, abab cdcd efef, and ended with a couplet, gg, instead of the octave and sestet found in the Italian sonnet. However, the end of the sixteenth century does not mark the end of the modification of the sonnet. It took the efforts of several other poets to complete the transformation of the sonnet from a vehicle to express lament for a mistress to a complex piece of poetry capable of using rhyme to enhance a theme that has little to do with a woman’s love.
Early in the seventeenth century, the sonnet was transfigured into a way to worship God, and a whole new wave of poets, including John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton, took this new format in a completely different direction. Donne uses the sonnet format to question God or, more correctly, demand of God the means to his salvation. As with Herbert, Donne is also concerned with his soul. In “Sonnet X,” Donne demands that God “Batter my heart.” The poet asks for God to ravish him and save him from Satan. This is a more violent poem than either Herbert or Milton write. The jaggedness and choppiness of the verse suggest the emotion of the content. For Donne, salvation is brought through a more violent questioning, rather than through praise. Donne implores God to defeat their common enemy, Satan. He foresees salvation only if God imprisons him within his grace. In his less angry poems, Donne substitutes images for demands, but he still holds back from simple praise. In “Sonnet IX,” Donne calls forth an image of the crucifixion and uses a meditative format to find his way to God: Donne calls forth the image, analyzes the image, and then prays to God. This method, while different from the one that Herbert uses, is still focused on finding a way to salvation. Donne plays with the sonnet’s rhyme scheme by blending the English and the Italian sonnet and creating his own format, one that Herbert also uses. The first two quatrains of the sonnet maintain the English formula, abab cdcd, but the final quatrain is changed from the English formula, efef, to the Italian formula, effe, and an English couplet, gg, is added to complete the sonnet. By modifying both content and rhyme, Donne alters the traditional formulas, moving his sonnets away from both the early incarnation by Wyatt and the later reincarnation by Shakespeare, and into a format by which the poet can dialogue with God. Herbert’s use of the sonnet differs slightly from that of Donne. Herbert also demands answers from God, although he is not as strident in his demands. In “Prayer (I),” Herbert uses the sonnet as a prayer to God, but one notable difference from Donne’s format is that Herbert removes the division between octave and sestet. There is no posing of a question in the first two quatrains, nor is there a response in the sestet. Herbert does not use verbs in his sonnet/ prayer; instead, the poem is a series of noun phrases, which mirror the content: a demand for answers from God.
The changes that Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert make in the sonnet establish the poets’ authority to play with or to manipulate the traditional format of the sonnet. As Donne and Herbert did in their sonnets, Milton also sets up a dialogue with God in “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” his poem on his blindness. Like Herbert, Milton is also wondering about his ability to serve God. Half his days are gone and he thinks he has not fulfilled all that his talent had predicted. Now he is blind, and in response, Milton questions how he can accomplish what he was sure God intended him to accomplish. The poet is discussing the most difficult moment of his life and wondering if he will be unable to reach his goals. The first part of the sonnet, the octave, is focused on Milton’s questioning of how best to serve God if he is blind; the sestet is the voice of patience, of God, who provides the answer just as he did for Herbert. Milton is told that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” By standing, of course, the poet has not fallen to sin/Satan. But, in patience, rather than in despair, God provides the answer and reassurance. Milton departs from Herbert’s use of praise and instead seeks his salvation through questioning. Although he is chastised by patience to “prevent that murmur,” the idea of questioning God is a tactic also used by Donne. Finally, the poem ends on a note of hope, as with Herbert’s sonnet. Milton uses the form and the theme of the sonnet to suit his purpose. He uses the Italian format in the octave, abbaabba, but varies the sestet in composition. In this sonnet, the sestet’s rhyme is the traditional Italian, cdecde, but in “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” Milton varies the sestet’s rhyme to cdedce. In this case, the complicated rhyme of the sestet reflects the complicated theme, the problem of time. The resolution of the octave’s problem is in the production of the sestet: the poet has produced his poem in spite of the restrictions of time. In another sonnet, “To The Lord General Cromwell,” Milton responds to a political problem. The army wants to name Cromwell king, but Milton is asking Cromwell not to accept this offer. The octave flatters Cromwell, but the change in the sonnet’s direction comes in the sestet and the more subtle movement to a request that is signified with the use of the word “yet.” The rhyme of the sestet changes also. Instead of the traditional Italian form, the sestet cddcee ends in a couplet, which reflects the pairings also found in the poem: “war and detractions” in line 2, and “faith” and “fortitude” in line 3.
Although Milton is composing sonnets in the seventeenth century, his sonnets reflect both the style and content, though modified, of the typical sixteenth-century sonnet. Shakespeare altered the form and the content slightly to reflect his own needs and objectives, and Milton altered it again to reflect the needs of his poetry. Milton takes what he wishes from the Italian sonnet, largely the octave’s rhyme, but he creates a sestet that reflects his own themes. Content, too, is open to modification. Where Shakespeare used the sonnet to explore a variety of secular ideas, the poets who followed in the early seventeenth century turned to religion, especially as a dialogue with God. The pinnacle of this adaption of the traditional sonnet is reached with Milton, who finds the sonnet a useful vehicle for exploring time, politics, and his own personal pain, as well as to reaffirm his belief that God has not abandoned him.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the English department and an adjunct professor in the university’s honors program.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049
Poems that are not given titles by their writers, such as this one by Milton, tend to be identified by their first line (“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth”). About fifty years after Milton’s death, however, this poem was dubbed “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three.” This title was immediately popular and has endured, even if some scholars of Milton wonder whether in saying that “Time” has “Stol’n” his “three-and-twentieth year” Milton is actually saying that he is commemorating in this poem his twenty-fourth and not his twenty-third birthday (in this case, what has been “Stol’n” is not really his twenty-third year of life, but rather that year which begins with the poet already at the age of twentythree). While this matter of the precise date of this poem is interesting (1631 or 1632?), it is, nevertheless, a minor point in the criticism, as Milton does not change radically as a writer in between his twenty-third and twenty-fourth years. Rather, scholars tend to divide Milton’s career into three phases: a first period that ends around 1640 (during which time he wrote “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three”), a second period during which he devoted himself to political, reformist writing (1640–1660), and a third period in which he returns to poetry and writes his greatest works, most notably the epic poem Paradise Lost. More significant than the precise year of the poem’s composition, then, are matters such as its sentiments and form, specifically the way in which the pious Christian sentiments of the poem presage the mood and concerns of Milton’s later poetry and the way in which its form proved to be so influential. “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty- Three” is a sonnet, which is a particular type of poem, and it is a sonnet organized in a manner that had yet to be tried in English literature. Following Milton’s adoption of this different sonnet form, his poetic contemporaries began writing sonnets in the same way, and they emulated, as well, his writing of sonnets on subjects other than love (sonnets written in English before Milton were usually love poems). Sonnets were first written in England in the sixteenth century and had fallen out of fashion by the time Milton began writing them. They were (and always are) written according to strict rules and conventions, and the sonnet form preferred by Milton’s predecessors tended to be fourteen line sonnets divided up into three quatrains and one couplet (a quatrain is a set of four lines; a couplet is a set of two lines). What readers and other poets particularly appreciated about Milton’s different sonnets was his use of a wholly different line arrangement, namely an octave (a set of eight lines as two linked quatrains), followed by a sestet (a set of six lines as two tercets, or two groupings of three lines). Although Milton, as in this poem, occasionally added an extra line or two to this major two-part arrangement, this different sonnet form is nevertheless characterized by its primary, central octave and sestet. What this type of two-part sonnet encourages are poetic meditations that first introduce or set up a problem in the octave and then resolve or reflect upon the problem in the sestet. This problemresolution structure allowed Milton and the poets who emulated him to address more mundane topics than love in their sonnets, topics in politics, for example, or, as in this poem, topical subjects. What “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty- Three” considers, specifically, is the problem of the poet’s belated creative maturity. Milton already knew by this time that he wished to be a great writer, and his problem is that he is growing older but still has not produced the sort and amount of work that might be expected of one with such ambitions: “My hasting days fly on with full career / But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.” In these lines, Milton complains that his years are advancing but he has little to show for them; no real “bud or blossom” is in evidence. Milton’s poem exemplifies the problemsolution organization of the octave-sestet sonnet form. The poet has no sooner stated that he sees “no bud or blossom” to show for his years than he states that he even looks younger than his age: “Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth / That I to manhood am arrived so near.” Milton’s “semblance” was deceptive in his early twenties, scholars say, because his delicate, feminine facial features made him appear much younger than he really was. Moving on from the matter of his outward appearance, Milton returns in the octave’s next lines to the problem of his professional belatedness. He points to some “more timely-happy spirits” who have achieved feats commensurate with their age, persons whose “ripeness” would seem to accord with their stage in life: “And inward ripeness doth much less appear, / That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.” Critics suggest that Milton had in mind close friends who, like himself, had chosen writing as their profession, but who, unlike Milton, had already published substantially by their early twenties. The octave’s focus is, therefore, quite clear. The poet is wondering whether his tardiness to mature might mean that he will never mature at all, whether his ambition to become a writer of renown may never come to be. This would be a catastrophe for Milton, for he had set himself by this time a strict course of reading and study, all to the end of becoming a master of English letters. Indeed, Milton is said to have gone blind in 1651 owing to his prodigious reading during these years of apprenticeship; he is said to have read, in his early manhood, everything of note written in English, Latin, Italian, and Greek. The sestet and final, extra line of Milton’s sonnet solves the problem put forth in the octave by re-conceiving time and ambition. Milton subordinates his own, individual ambitions to God’s will in the sestet, and he substitutes God’s eternal time for mortal, human time. Milton has thus decided by the end of this poem that his own ambitions are secondary to God’s plans for him, that he will submit to God’s will, and that in submitting to God’s will in this way he no longer feels keenly the possibility of any personal disappointment. Milton’s regret over his advancing age (mortal time) and belated development pales in significance once the rule and time of Heaven and God is considered. Thus, where time is that which is “hasting” or accumulating rapidly in the octave, “Time” is that which is meaningful only in terms of “the will of Heaven” in the sestet. As critic R. F. Hall noted in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, edited by Dennis Danielson, time in the poem seems to “slow down” in the sestet, so that by the
end of the poem, it is as if movement has become an irrelevance under the divine eye which gazes in eternal stasis at the poet (and us), yet provides the grace which it is the poet’s choice to use in order to transform his relation to time and ambition.
Milton in the octave is a worried, ambitious young man who is comparing himself to friends and wondering when he will produce the creative work he so desires to compose. In the sestet, to the contrary, youthful worry and ambition dissolves as God’s will is embraced. This change of mood and perspective is evident in the very first line of the sestet: “Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow.” Instead of anxious concern over his development (“it”), this line expresses a sanguine acceptance of whatever the poet’s personal pace and capabilities turn out to be. A creative output minor or major—“less” or “more”—is acceptable; a development “slow” or quick (“soon”) is likewise acceptable:
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, It shall be still in strictest measure even To that same lot, however mean or high, Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
This attitude of acceptance comes about because Milton in the sestet is not conceiving of himself as an individual, but rather as a servant and subject of the Christian Almighty, God. What he as an individual wants, he realizes, might not be what God has in store for him. Regardless of his own wishes, his progress is determined, ultimately, in “strictest measure,” by the Almighty. His “lot” will be that which God decides, and whether it is “mean” (low) or “high,” he will embrace it as “the will of Heaven.” Yet, even as the sestet of the poem replaces worldly, mortal time and ambition with God’s eternal time and will, there are, still, glimmerings of the youthful, hopeful Milton in the poem’s last lines: “As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye. / The “great Task-Master” is God.” As critic E. A. J. Honigmann suggests in Milton’s Sonnets, “Milton borrowed the word [Task-Master] not to complain of a harsh overseer but to suggest that he himself may have a special task, as a poet.” Milton subordinates his life to God’s will, but he is still hoping, at the poem’s end, that God’s “grace” portends what he especially longs for, namely greatness as a poet. The mix of Christian humility and proud individualism in this poem is characteristic of much of Milton’s writing, including his last works, and it says a great deal about both the nature of Milton’s religiosity and of Christian belief in general at the time. What this period in Britain is known for are the many Christian reform movements that contested the hierarchical and elitist composition of the Church. Of particular importance to reformers was a new way of conceiving the status of the individual Christian in relation to priests, parsons, and other official church representatives. These reformers insisted that the individual Christian did not need an official church representative to be an intermediary in between him or herself and God. Rather, to the reformers, any Christian was, in God’s eyes, as privileged as the next, and all Christians, regardless of their station in life, should consider themselves as godly as the next person, no matter that this person was a priest, bishop, and so on. What this teaching points to, on the one hand, is the deep piety of the reformers: they were propagating a version of Christianity that encouraged direct and constant communication with God. On the other hand, this teaching elevates the individual, as any person is deemed godly enough to commune with God directly. This suggests both the populism (a belief in the equality of persons) and individualism (the belief in the importance of the individual) of the movements, in that any and each individual on the planet was considered good enough to communicate directly with the greatest of beings himself, God Almighty. Milton and these other reformers were, then, pious populists and individualists of sorts. The force of this Christian reform movement in England was immense, as its populism intersected with equally populist political movements, movements designed to replace England’s monarchy with a republican (elected) form of government. These various reform movements led, in fact, to a Civil War, an upheaval in which Milton played an important role and whose major event was the deposing and execution, in 1649, of the King of England, Charles I. In 1660, however, monarchy was restored, and since Milton had been a vigorous and prolific writer in defense and support of the reformers, he was incarcerated at this time. Yet, thanks to the intervention of powerful friends, he was soon freed. He then settled into his final period of literary output, his greatest period in which he produced the poems for which he is most especially admired (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and “Samson Agonistes.”) Source: Carol Dell’Amico, Critical Essay on “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Dell’Amico is a college instructor of English literature and composition.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1827
When a young John Milton penned “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” he was still a student at Cambridge University, working towards a master of arts degree, which he would receive the next year, at the age of twenty-four. Milton had been writing poems since the age of fifteen, and by the time he left Cambridge, he had accumulated a significant body of poetry: Latin elegies, translations of biblical psalms, and many pages of English verse.
He would wait almost another ten years before he began to publish widely, and even then the works he put his name to would be political or theological arguments, not poetry. Not until fourteen years later, at the age of thirty-seven, would his first volume of poems appear. His literary reputation would not be solidified until just before his sixtieth birthday, with the publication of his epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost.
In the meantime, Milton would live through some of the greatest upheaval in Western history. The Renaissance, with its new emphasis on the dignity of humanity, and its amazing scientific and artistic accomplishments, was still a recent memory, which led, both directly and indirectly, to great political and social upheaval. During Milton’s lifetime, an English king would be deposed by his own people and replaced by Oliver Cromwell’s sociallyconservative Protectorate, which would itself be replaced by another member of the royal family.
Milton underwent enormous personal turmoil: a famously fragile first marriage, the deaths of two children, public censure for his liberal opinions on divorce, political reversals as the English government shifted beneath his feet—and, perhaps most significantly, his own blindness, which struck him at the age of forty-four, sixteen years before Paradise Lost was completed.
Modern readers approaching “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three” know something even Milton did not know about the poem at the time: the end of the story—both the events of Milton’s life and eventual death and the place he has taken in history. Since, in the poem, Milton looks forward over his life and wonders what he might turn out to be, the details of his personal life, and secondarily of the history he lived through, take on a special meaning. For many modern readers attempting to make sense of this early sonnet, the most salient detail of all may be that it was written in 1631.
In 1631, Milton was writing in modern English, but just barely. In fact, that date places him closer on the historical timeline to Chaucer’s Middle English than to the English spoken by today’s modern readers. That means that, for the average reader, Milton’s language may initially seem difficult. But, a close examination reveals a sonnet that is actually quite beautiful in its simplicity—one in which a young man ponders on the universal theme of destiny and what he might turn out to be.
Milton opens the poem by describing time as a winged thief, one who has “stol’n” his “threeand- twentieth year”—playing with a theme that is still common today, the sense that time often passes too quickly, with milestones appearing far before people believe they are ready. Not only has his twenty-third birthday arrived too quickly for Milton, but winged time shows no signs of slowing down: his “hasting days fly on with full career.” In this phrase, “career” takes an archaic meaning indicating high velocity.
Although the days of Milton’s life speed by, young Milton tells the reader that he is not sure what he has to show for himself, with the line “But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.” Milton’s mention of “late spring” is a reference to the season of life he considers himself to be in: still in early adulthood, he is not yet in the “summer” of his life, but there are not, for him, many more days of springtime. Although spring usually brings with it the signs of the summer to come in the form of buds and blossoms that will yield summer flowers and fruit, Milton says that his life, as yet, shows no such concrete potential—no buds or blossom from which to guess the shape of things to come or even prove that he may ever be fruitful.
There might be several reasons for this, Milton goes on to say. It could be simply that he does not look as old as he actually is: “Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth / That I to manhood am arrived so near.” But, the lack of outward proof of his maturity is not just an illusion, Milton admits. In fact, he finds his entire character still not as mature as other people of his age, a fact that he describes by continuing his blossom metaphor and comparing himself to unripe fruit: “And inward ripeness doth much less appear, / That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.”
For Milton, as a student of the New Testament, this description of himself as a possibly barren plant must have had special resonance: it is highly unlikely that he could have chosen the metaphor without conscious awareness of its resemblance to a metaphor that Christ used during his famous encounter with a barren fig tree. In that story, Christ curses the tree for not bearing fruit in season and tells a parable that ends with Christ commanding that every tree that does not produce good fruit be cut down and thrown into the fire. For the young Milton, then, bearing fruit would not mean just a matter of personal success—it was a matter of spiritual life or death.
In the next lines, however, Milton softens his judgment of himself with hope for the future, in language that echoes St. Paul’s well-known statement on the love of God, in which he affirms that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Milton’s next phrases, while not identical, are very similar to St. Paul’s cadence, and take a similar stand of hope in God in spite of any circumstance: “Yet be it [inward ripeness] less or more, or soon or slow, / It shall be still in strictest measure even / To that same lot, however mean or high, / Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.” Milton even imitates St. Paul’s slightly asymmetrical listing, interrupting himself with the long phrase “It shall be still in strictest measure even / To that same lot,” before continuing his list of circumstances with “however mean or high.” In these lines, the archaic use of “even” roughly substitutes for the modern “equal.” Whether he matures more or less, or quickly or slowly, Milton says, his maturity will exactly equal the life, however small or great, which God has planned for him.
Milton’s closing lines paraphrase another statement of St. Paul, also in Romans 8, in perhaps the saint’s most powerful teaching on the working of God in human destiny, when he says that “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Although Milton has yet to bud or flower, he remains certain of God’s attention and care: “All is, if I have grace to use it so, / As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye.” As he makes this claim, even time, which Milton initially figured as a somewhat hostile winged thief, becomes part of the pattern of “all things” in which, Milton and St. Paul assert, God works. By the end of the sonnet, time is no longer working against Milton, stealing his youth, but a partner (and implicitly a servant) of the “Will of Heaven,” leading Milton inexorably toward his destiny.
Throughout the poem, Milton achieves a delicate balance in the age-old tension between free will and predestination. His reference to Christ and the unproductive fig tree and his meditations on his own achievements reveal a deep sense of his own responsibility—but he is also aware that the forces that will shape his character, and his destiny, are finally in God’s hands, not his own. Even as he finds a measure of peace through his argument for belief in the providence of God, he acknowledges that he must still act well within the circumstances time and Heaven give him, that he must “have the grace to use it so.”
To modern readers looking back, Milton’s poem may seem almost prophetic. Milton knew himself well when he wrote that he was not yet inwardly ripe at twenty-three. Even after graduation at twenty-four, he would return to his parents’ home to continue his private studies for almost eight years before he began publishing in earnest. He would not solidly establish himself as one of the brightest stars in the English literary constellation for another forty years. But, his sense of destiny, of the finger of God on his life, proved to be no lie. No generation of readers since has been able to ignore Milton: his work has been widely reprinted, and read, in every century since his death, and many critics place him secondary only to Shakespeare among English poets. Even his prose works continued to affect the destinies of humanity long after his death: his writings against tyranny formed part of the framework for revolution in both America and France, and “Areopagitica,” his 1644 defense of free speech, has even figured in modern United States court decisions.
Although “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three” is profoundly interesting given Milton’s historical context, Milton’s true genius is revealed in the fact that, even if he had never become the towering literary figure he did, the poem would stand alone as a universal document of human experience. In it, Milton captures the essence of the moment at which a young person stands on the cusp of adulthood, looking both forward and back, and asking themselves the same questions that every young person, at some point, asks: What have I accomplished here, yet? What do I have to show for it? What should I do next? How do my plans intersect with a future I can barely see? Which way is my destiny? What is going to happen? What does Time hold, what does Heaven have planned?
In the midst of all these questions, Milton’s poem offers comfort to the reader—not because Milton finally succeeded, but because, as he and St. Paul both assert, despite any circumstance, destiny lies finally in God’s great hands.
Source: Carey Wallace, Critical Essay on “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Wallace is a freelance writer and poet.