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Study Help: John Milton's On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three (1631)

Updated on February 21, 2017

On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three (1631)

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
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 indu’th.
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,
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-master’s eye

Analysis and Interpretation

This poem wastes no time in setting up who our speaker’s perceived antagonist is. In the first two lines, he characterizes Time as a winged “thief of youth,” that has stolen the speaker’s adolescence before he could make anything of himself. Calling Time a “thief” suggests that Milton does not blame himself for his lack of advancement in his 23 years of life. He avoids castigating himself by placing blame on an uncontrollable force. It is much easier to find fault outside of one’s self, especially if the thing supposedly at fault is an abstract concept such as Time.

In the following lines Milton emphasizes the speed with which he feels time has passed by describing his days as “hasting” and “full.” Hasting certainly implies speed, although it also implies purpose. A person is told to “make haste” when they are needed somewhere. Similarly, “full” may imply that his days are busy, leaving little empty time between tasks. It seems that the time he felt pass has not been passed idly, but rather with hard work and toil. These lines may be referring to the years he had already spent studying at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he was still enrolled when he wrote this poem. He would graduate the following year in 1632. Perhaps he felt that many years had been wasted studying and learning about other people’s works rather than making his own.

In line four, the poet introduces a metaphor in which he uses the seasonal cycle to symbolize the various stages in life. Within this metaphor, spring symbolizes youth, summer is the prime of life, autumn is middle age, and winter is old age or death. He characterizes his own stage in life as “late spring.” While “late spring” does not seem very old to modern readers, it is important to remember that the average life expectancy in the 17th century was much lower than that of today. In continuation of his seasonal metaphor, Milton states that “no bud or blossom” has grown in his late spring. In other words, he believes he has nothing to show for it thus far, and furthermore implies that he does not see good prospects for the summer of his life. After all, if there are no buds or blossoms in spring, then how can there be beautiful full flowers in the summer.

In lines five through seven, the poet recognizes that his “semblance” may make him seem very young to others, although he inwardly feels that he is leaving the time of his youth. “I to manhood am arrived so near.” Whether he wishes for others to recognize his maturity seems unclear, however he clearly feels there is a discrepancy between his inner maturity or “ripeness” and his outward appearance. At the time this poem was written Milton was still a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge and perhaps he felt that his role as a student or inferior to his teachers did not reflect the artistic maturity he felt he possessed.

In lines eight through ten Milton begins to change his attitude toward the passage of time by surrendering his “lot” or fate to the will of God, a power he considers to be higher than that of Time. He also seems to relent some of his worry about the degree of his success by implying that whether it is “less or more,” “soon or slow” doesn’t matter. These lines mark a clear shift in the speaker’s thinking.

In the last three lines of the poem, Milton completely surrenders his worry about success to the “will of Heaven." Interestingly, although this outlook is more positive in some aspects than his opening attitude, he is still using a scapegoat to avoid taking responsibility for his station in life. In the beginning, he blames Time for stealing away his youth, displacing responsibility, and in the end, he displaces responsibility again by surrendering his fate the and the “great Task-master’s eye,” which is to say he believes he has no say in what task God will assign him. So, although the poet feels that he has gone through a self-discovery of sorts, he is back where he started.

In 17th century England, religion was a huge part of everyday life. It was also a time when many opposing religious factions formed, bringing about often heated theological debates. Milton’s tendency to displace his responsibility for his station in life could actually reflect a religious affiliation to Calvinism. One of the most important tenants of Calvinism is Predestination, which states that people’s fate both in life and the after-life is predetermined by God. This means that people can do nothing to change that fate. While his adherence to these ideas could have been rooted in deep religious conviction, they could also reflect a man searching for comfort where he could find it. After suddenly becoming aware that so much time has passed without consequence, believing that God must have a great predestined plan for him would have lessened his anxiety. John Milton saw himself as a talented poet and intellectual and believed that God would never waste his talent by dealing him an unfavorable fate.

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    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 8 months ago from Indiana, USA

      Wonderful! I appreciate the historical background and aspects you've given.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 8 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Tremendous work. Great analysis. Sharing everywhere.