John Milton wrote Sonnet #7 (“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth”) on the occasion of his 23rd birthday. He was in process of completing his Master of Arts degree and was contemplating his future career. One possibility was to become an Anglican priest. Another was to continue his work in poetry. In light of all this, he reflects on how quickly the last year has gone. Notice the pun on the word “career” in line 3, which can mean “a swift course” as well as “one’s profession or occupation in life.”
Milton aspired to be a great poet but was not satisfied with what he had written so far (“my late spring no bud or blossom show’th” in line 4). However, even though his literary output was not what he wanted, he was confident that an inner maturing was taking place which would bear fruit in its proper time (lines 7-8).
The final six lines of the poem show Milton’s determination to continue his work. He knows that God is the one who ultimately directs his steps, allots him his tasks, and determines the timing. Whether God has high or low (“mean” in line 11) tasks planned for him, nothing is wasted. The next year Milton embarked on a six year program of self-study in preparation to become a poet.
SONNET 7: HOW SOON HATH TIME – by John Milton
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 show’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 endueth.
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 Taskmaster’s eye.
- John Milton’s 400th Birthday
- Background information on Sonnet 7
- Sonnet 19 – When I consider how my light is spent