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On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three

by John Milton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

Crisis of Faith
The crisis created by Milton’s awareness of the passage of time is one that can be resolved by the poet’s choice to put his future in God’s hands. In the first eight lines of the poem, Milton worries that time has passed too quickly. He has been at Cambridge studying, but has had little time to fulfill what he sees as his destiny. Milton is aware he is a talented poet, but instead of writing poetry, he has been studying. This precipitates a crisis of faith for the poet, who worries he has wasted precious time. But maybe the poet’s talent, which “be it less or more,” will be less when he is mature. He worries, although he is still confident of his future. In the final six lines of the sonnet, Milton acknowledges that time, whether “soon or slow,” will still inevitably lead him to God. This is the same future that all men will face, “however mean or high.” Time will lead Milton to God, if he can accept the limitations of earthly time. In these final lines, Milton finds the answer to his problem in giving control over his life to God and, as a result, his crisis of faith is resolved.

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Milton uses this sonnet to symbolize the poet’s journey from doubt to self-discovery. He feels guilty about his time spent studying when he has not published anything. He is slow to mature, and by “late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.” But, in line 9, the pronoun “it,” whose antecedent is unclear, but which is usually thought to refer to the poet’s maturity, might suggest that the poet’s talents will ripen with maturity, that rather than having wasted his youth, the poet has been marking time until he is mature enough to create the kind of poetry he feels destined to create. As he nears age twenty-four, the poet feels he is at the border between youth and manhood, a time to which he has “arrived so near.” He worries that when he reaches maturity his talent may be less, rather than more. Although worried, he is confident in his own abilities, and so the sonnet moves the poet from the hesitance and questioning of youth to the realization that perhaps he will achieve all he wishes. The sestet is filled with obscure references: it, more, less, soon, slow. There are contradictions and uncertainties, all of which indicate that the journey will not always be clear. Ultimately, the poet feels the journey will bring him success. His intent is to please God and use his abilities as best he can. The journey is to reaffirm the poet’s faith in God and to find his place in the world.

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Passage of Time
Milton’s sonnet explores the idea of time as a guide to his destiny. Milton calls time “the subtle thief of youth” because time steals without awareness. This sonnet is written sometime after Milton’s twenty-third birthday, and already the poet is thinking about the approach of his twenty-fourth birthday. He sees the ways in which time steals the days away from him, and he is not even aware of each day passing. The poet notes how he has planned to accomplish so many things, yet instead feels he has spent too much time studying and learning. What he considers the promise of his youth has come to no fruition, “no bud or blossom shew’th.” In lines 5 through 8, the poet suggests that time can deceive others, since he still appears to be young; but Milton knows the truth, that time has stolen his youth. In the final six lines of the poem, Milton changes direction and the sestet responds to the problem expressed in the octave: time which steals his youth is also bringing him closer to God. This religious interpretation of time expresses the Renaissance notion that the passage of time will bring mankind closer to a final meeting with God. Milton justifies his use of time because, regardless of how he spends it, in the end time is on his side, bringing him closer to his God.

Predestination and Free Will
This poem makes clear that Milton is incorporating both Calvinist ideas of predestination and the Anglican Church’s emphasis on free will into his poem. The poem’s octave, the first eight lines, focuses on the problem of free will. Milton has chosen his course of study, and as a result he has neglected his own talents, his poetry. This time spent on academics has flourished and flown, as he acknowledges in line 3: “My hasting days fly on.” But now, as he readies himself to leave Cambridge, he must face the awareness of lost time. In the poem’s sestet, Milton moves toward resolution, which he finds in embracing both the Calvinist idea of predestination and the Anglican promise of free will. He can reconcile his wasted youth if he gives the choice to God. His youth has not been wasted, since it moves him closer to God; this is “the will of Heaven.” At the same time, the next line, “if I have grace to use it so,” takes the poem back to free will. His talents will grow and develop if Milton chooses to do so. As a result of Milton’s playing with this opposition, he creates a tension in his poem. Human effort and divine will are partners in Milton’s future. The resolution to Milton’s dilemma is in recognizing this fact.

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