John Milton – How Soon Hath Time


The young Milton that speaks in this sonnet already bears the hallmarks of the solemn, passionate author oft Paradise Lost. This is a retrospective on the formative years of the poet’s life; a blend of intense self-reproach, anxiety about self-worth and a quiet faith in Divine will provide a stimulating glimpse of a man with a passionate sense of duty. Milton’s unique poetic power is conveyed in the crisp unity of imagery and sensitivity to pace and tension, allowing the reader to ‘fly on with full career’ towards the ambivalent final lines.

The soaring opening lines of the sonnet provide an important motif for Milton’s reflections, and a suggestive counterpoint to imagery of fruit and burden in the second quatrain. The exclamatory first sentence flows quickly with monosyllabic words, seeming to rise in pitch from the subordinate clause that lifts us to the image of the bird’s ‘wing’. It is this anatomization of ‘Time’ that ‘fly[‘s] on with full career’ and is set against the backdrop of late spring and the young bird’s first flight in line 4. The easy integration of the metaphors gives a tangible presence to abstract ideas and aids quick scansion, complementing the image with associations of free movement and carelessness. The word ‘career’ tempers this tone with a dual meaning in ‘haste’ and ’employment’ – it is weighed down with two opposing meanings, one suggesting the liberty and dissolution of youth and the other practical maturity and a sense of duty. Other words, ‘ripeness’ and ‘appear’ are also burdened with a wealth of meaning, and hang like ripe fruit at poignant moments in the poem. This is a significant clash of motifs: the freedom of soaring youth and the solemn maturity that ‘endu’th’ a poet with duty like a tree bearing fruit. If the conflicting meanings of ‘career’ can be resolved in the sublime flights of imagination that are attached to poetic employment, then this antithesis that structures the poem might imply Milton’s doubts over the legitimacy of such a profession.

One Biblical allusion is inferred in the final line of the poem, but another hangs ominously over the middle. The latter suggests anxiety and fear of divine displeasure at Milton’s so far unfruitful life. The budding branches and ‘ripeness’ of others serve as an indictment for Milton of his own lack of achievement. They bring to mind a Gospel passage of which Milton could not have been unaware, where Jesus allegorises on the branches connected to the Tree of Life that bear fruit. Branches that produce nothing are pruned and cast into the fire. The first part of this allegory gives explanation to the apparent show of confidence in ‘It shall be’, showing Milton’s faith that God will provide direction to his life. That confidence is somewhat belied, however, by the conclusion of the sentence, ‘even / To that same lot… To which Time leads me’. A formulation which reduces down to the approximation ‘What will be will be’. The paratactic ‘and the will of heaven‘ sounds hurried and much less assured. Thus the tone quivers between complete confidence in assured destiny on the one hand, and abject fear of an unfulfilled life in the other.

A second parable, that of the vineyard keeper, is alluded to in the final lines of the sonnet. This parable is invoked as an affirmation of hope for Milton, that those who begin their work late are no less rewarded than those who find their vocation early. Equally it raises questions about God’s justice that are emphasized in their ambivalence. The ‘great Taskmaster’ in Jesus’ parable pays the same day’s wage to those who started work in the morning and those who have only just begun. Milton asserts this principle in the final lines, confidently though with the apologetic and perhaps doubtful ‘if I have grace to use it so’. Significantly this is a phrase that refuses to commit to the source of ‘grace’. The ambiguity is on the word ‘have’, making us wonder if this grace is something heavenly given or innate within the poet. The ambiguity exists to emphasize Milton’s own uncertainty about the source, and therefore the sacred validity, of poetic art. Bearing in mind the dangers of interpreting Milton’s early sonnets through a work written many years after, the ‘great Taskmaster’ still irresistibly brings to mind Eve’s epithet for God in Paradise Lost, ‘Our Great Forbidder’.I don’t think the comparison can be taken to the extent of suggesting a criticism of God’s authoritarian demand for labour – an idea that Milton passionately advocated. However it does bring to the foreground the tensions between control and freedom, obedience and justice that run right through Milton’s work, and might just have been felt more intensely by the younger, prouder Milton.

This is a self-portrait of an intensely devoted young man, fraught with anxiety over his destiny and vocation. It is a rich insight into a unique mind that was both fanatical and deeply humane, with a complex blend of confidence and doubt. The sonnet’s elegance demands that it be more than just a footnote to the poet’s grander works.

 

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