Sonnet VII: How soon hath Time, the Subtle Thief of Youth
ON HIS BEING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF 23.
by John Milton
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n 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 arriv’d so near;
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev’n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n:
All is, if I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye.
This poem was included in a letter Milton wrote to a friend who had apparently chided him on for being too slow to begin his life’s work. The poem forms a part of Milton’s explanation for his delay, and concludes by humorously remarking that “By this I believe you may well repent of having made mention at all of this matter; for if I have not all this while won you to this, I have certainly wearied you of it.” You may read more of the letter on pages v-viii in A Selection from the English Prose Works of John Milton, Volume 1, which you will find embedded at the bottom of this page.
John Milton (1608–1674) was an English writer of prose and poetry, as well as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He is best known for Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem written in blank verse.
Milton’s poetry and prose reveal an enormous intellect, cultivated by an excellent education in English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian.
Although he integrated theological themes in his writing, Milton’s beliefs did not entirely conform to Protestant orthodoxy. His writing reflects deep personal convictions and a passion for self-determination. Although he was blind by his mid-forties, he continued to write by dictating to his daughters; he wrote Paradise Lost by dictation. Milton’s friend Andrew Marvell composed a poem, “On Mr. Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’,” describing his reaction to the blind poet’s central work.
You may read an excellent short biography of John Milton at Poetry Foundation.
This playlist of three episodes from the 1984 television series, Six Centuries of Verse, hosted by John Gielgud, features Ian Richardson discussing and performing works from John Milton. This is a more secular approach to the poem and does contain some illustrations with unclad human forms.
Cambridge University hosts a 400th Anniversary Celebration site with a biography and a variety of Milton resources.
Yale University offers ENGL 220: MILTON, a free, 24-lecture course on John Milton, taught by John Rogers, a Milton expert and Professor of English at Yale. Described as “a study of Milton’s poetry, with attention paid to his literary sources, his contemporaries, his controversial prose, and his decisive influence on the course of English poetry”, this course is an excellent resource if you enjoy Milton, or are working through the Paradise Lost module in Excellence in Literature: World Literature. This is a college course; be aware that advanced issues are discussed.