The Earthly and the Divine: The Reconciliation of Time in Milton’s “Sonnet 7”

In “Sonnet 7”, Milton is grappling with the feeling that time is consuming his youth before he has a chance to cultivate his “inward ripeness” and produce “mature” poetry. When Milton situates time within an earthly realm at the beginning of the poem, time is viewed negatively as a fleeing thief; however, when Milton situates time within a spiritual context, time is viewed in a positive light, as a leader. The poem is not rife with imagery or enargeia but is rather an exploration of Milton’s thoughts using subtle, carefully chosen figurative language. In the sonnet, Milton presents a “working out” of his poetic conundrum, which involves presenting ideas, flipping them, and viewing their opposites. It is through Milton’s exploration of opposing ideas through metaphor and antithesis that bring balance and harmony to the structure, form and his own state of mind in “Sonnet 7.”

Throughout “Sonnet 7”, Milton utilizes the “time as an agent” scheme; time moves along, bringing Milton with it. The way in which time moves Milton changes from the beginning to the end of the poem however. In the beginning of the poem, the figures and tropes that Milton uses to describe time expresses his frustration and animosity towards it. Time is personified as a “subtle thief”, stealing his youth in a stealthy manner. Time is also expressed metaphorically as a flying, fast moving bird, as it has: “Stol’n on his wing my three and twenti’th year!” (2). Time not only steals but steals quickly, as Milton’s “hasting days fly on with full career” (3). Here Milton has presented time as a swift thief; this poses a problem because though time moves forward at a quick pace to Milton’s late spring, “no bud or blossom shew’th” (4). The “people as plants” scheme is at work in this metaphor. The buds and blossoms represent the outward expressions of his inward maturity: poetry. Milton is in essence a “late bloomer.” This metaphor applies not only to Milton as a writer of poetry (“And inward ripeness doth much less appear” (7)), but also extends to his physical appearance: “Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, / That I to manhood am arriv’d so near” (5-6). 

In the first eight lines of the poem, Milton is rather pessimistic about the passage of time; this is because time is situated within an earthly realm. On earth, time steals and consumes youth because humans are mortal and therefore their earthly presence is ephemeral. Milton’s personification of time as a thief and time as a bird not only express the ideas of theft, quickness and ephemerality; but the fact that they themselves (thieves and birds) are earthly entities emphasizes that time is an earthly presence, an earthly concern. 

The transition of the poem occurs when Milton presents a series of opposing ideas: “Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow / …mean, or high” (9, 11). The repetition of the word “or” paired with the similar structure of the antithetical statements draws attention to Milton’s epiphany, which is that he should not be concerned with earthly pressures, but should focus on God and the divine for guidance. Whether he matures as a poet “less or more” or “soon or slow” or “mean or high” does not matter because “It shall be in the strictest measure ev’n, / To that same lot” (10-11). With the word “ev’n” or “equal”, Milton is bringing in the idea that things will “equal out” in accordance to his “lot” or fate; just as the antithetical statements “equal out” or balance each other. 

After this transition, Milton finishes the poem with a new outlook on the “time as an agent” scheme: instead of time consuming his life, time becomes a leader towards God, and by extension, heaven: “Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n” (12). Time becomes an agent of hope instead of an agent of despair. The transformation of time (in Milton’s eyes) has occurred due to a turning towards the divine. In a spiritual realm, in heaven, time does not exist because the concept of time is lost in eternity. Therefore, Milton has unburdened himself from earthly concerns and put his faith in “the will of Heav’n” (12). Here, using metonymy, “Heav’n” can be seen as representing God; this is important because it draws attention very specifically to the spiritual realm, which is in opposition to the earthly realm.  In terms of heaven and eternity, the concepts of time, youth, and fruitfulness (poetry production) are not of the utmost concern; Milton concludes at the end of the poem that things will work out in accordance to fate and God’s will: “All is /…As ever” (11, 12). 

-AJS

Featured Image Credit: William Blake, David Delivered out of Many Waters, 1805

Work Cited: John Milton, “Sonnet 7

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