Summary and Analysis

On Time cover image

“On Time,” by the English poet John Milton (1608-1674), deals with one of the most common themes in all of medieval or Renaissance literature: the theme of mutability, or the idea that life on earth is full of constant (and mainly negative) change. The inevitable passage of time was a particularly painful example of such change, especially since it ultimately involved physical deterioration and then, eventually, physical death. Milton’s poem is a response to such gradual but certain decay. Like many other writers of his era (an era dominated by Christian thinking), Milton emphasized that humans can escape the ravages of time by attaining an eternal life in heaven that is full of joy.

Line 1 begins with the vigorous verb “Fly” (that is, “flee”), which immediately asserts the speaker’s vigor and self-confidence. Rather than being intimidated by time, he attacks and mocks it (much as John Donne attacks and mocks a personified Death in his Holy Sonnet X). Time is “envious,” a word which in Milton’s era mainly meant being hateful, malignant, and/or spiteful. But perhaps it also here suggests that Time, which is limited and bound to end, envies human beings, who are capable of existing eternally. In any case, by personifying time as “Time,” Milton makes it almost seem a living thing—an assertion which already implies a bit of irony since he soon suggests that Time will die. Time, in this poem, seems not merely an abstract philosophical concept; it is a malevolent, active being whom one must resist and defeat. The speaker, however, immediately implies that he feels no fear of Time; from the very first line, he suggests that Time is fated to suffer death.

Line 2 shows Milton’s talent for using sound effects. In this case, the effects involve not only alliteration (repetition of similar consonant sounds) but also assonance (repetition of similar vowel sounds), as in the repetition here of “l’s” and short “e’s”: “Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours.” Having already mentioned the word “race” in line 1 (a word implying speed), the speaker now implies (through the use of the particular adjectives here) that Time moves very slowly. It is as if the speaker feels contempt for the “lazy leaden-stepping hours,” as if he is almost eager for Time to run its race as quickly as possible.

Line 3 once more emphasizes the slowness of Time by comparing its movement, appropriately enough, to that of a “plummet” (or weight) in a clock, which slowly descends and thus powers the time-piece.

Line 4 implies that Time is a kind of crude glutton, eager to consume living things and then digest them in its stomach (or “womb”). It is as if Time has now become a huge, personified gut—a kind of mindless, all-consuming stomach. Here again, then, the tone is completely contemptuous.

Line 5 again speaks of Time contemptuously, suggesting that what it greedily devours is in any case worthless, so that Time seems not only crude but also stupid. Time is willing to...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)