How Soon Hath Time

by John Milton

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What is the analysis of Milton's Sonnet VIII, "How Soon Hath Time, the Subtle Thief of Youth"?

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Milton was a deeply religious man, and he considered his writings as his ordained means of serving God. This is evident in his sonnet beginning with the line "How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth," as well as in a later sonnet written after he had gone blind, beginning with the line, "When I consider how my light is spent." He obviously feels dependent upon inspiration, and it would seem that he is awaiting divine inspiration, at least for his creative writing. In "How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth," which is also called "On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three," he expresses concern that he has not yet produced anything he considers artistically valuable. He writes:

My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.

Many older people would consider him too impatient. From his perspective the age of twenty-three might seem old, but he has accumulated little life experience, has spent his earlier years absorbed in reading in many foreign languages (he was fluent in English, Latin, Greek, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic, and Syriac), and is just beginning to think for himself. There are a few creative writers who have produced outstanding works at an early age, including John Keats, Arthur Rimbaud, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but most of the world’s masterpieces were written by authors in their thirties, forties and fifties.

Milton expresses the same impatience with himself in his most beautiful poem, "Lycidas," a tribute to a young friend who died by drowning. He begins with the lines:

YEt once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

By this metaphor, "before the mellowing year," he means he feels too immature and too inexperienced to be attempting such an ambitious poem. He was about twenty-nine years old at that time, yet he is still dissatisfied with himself and frustrated at being unable to live up to his extremely high aesthetic standards.

In “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” he writes:

Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.

Milton was extremely delicate and pale. At Cambridge he was called “The Lady of Christ’s.” He acknowledges that he looks immature ("deceive the truth / That I to manhood") and that nothing he has composed thus far compares with some of the works produced by young contemporaries. Characteristically, he closes his sonnet with the thought that he will be guided by what he calls “the will of Heaven.” His sonnet “On His Blindness,” written many years later, closes with a similar thought: that his life is being directed by God and that he will patiently and humbly accept whatever God (whom he calls “my great Taskmaster” in the sonnet he composed on turning twenty-three)  has decided will be his fate. This thought is encapsulated in the wonderful final line:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton's sonnet on having turned twenty-three shows his strong ambition, his religious devotion, and his awareness of his great genius which was slowly maturing and was not fully realized until he composed his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, when he was nearly sixty years old and completely blind.

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