Use of Allusions in John Milton’s "How Soon Hath Time"


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Allusion helps one way or another to connect the reader and the author firmly. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, allusion is an implied or indirect reference to a person, event, or thing or to a part of another text. Most of them based on the assumption that there is a body of knowledge that is shared by the author and the reader and that therefore the reader will understand the author’s referent. Allusion assists the reader to comprehend the themes of literary works and meaning. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions elucidates that an allusion may be defined as the mention of the name of a real person, historical event, or literary character which is not simply a straightforward reference (Delahunty et al. vii). But the meaning of allusion is not stable, Delahunty asserts that allusions have changed their meaning over time (ix). The allusion is an intertextuality, and it as one of the many ways in which any text is interlinked with other texts (Abrams 10).

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Milton was born into a prosperous middle-class family of Puritan leanings and considerable culture on December 9, 1608, in Bread Street, City of London, United Kingdom. He was trained as a boy chorister. He used to play bass-viol. Milton’s father, Richard Milton encouraged him to study literature, and he was eager to serve the church. Milton began reading the Bible early. Sitting under a Puritan minister and growing up among hard-working tradesmen proud of their steadily expanding wealth, power, and status as citizens of London, Milton would have become conscious early on of political, religious, and cultural strains in the national fabric (Lewalski 4). Much of Milton’s childhood was given over to study, arranged by his father who was eager to give his extraordinary son the best education possible. Between the ages of five and seven, Milton learned to read and write in English, Latin and to do arithmetic. (5) Milton had gained the comprehensive knowledge of Plato, Xenophon, and Bible from early childhood which helps him to develop his views on chastity, gender hierarchy, and virtuous marriage. Milton had started to write poetry at the age of ten (13), which reveal his brilliance and his artistic temperament from the early age, as he had quoted in his poetry entitled Paradise Regained, “The childhood shows the man / As morning shows the day” (68).

Milton uses both personal and Biblical allusions in his sonnet, “How Soon Hath Time”, also known as Sonnet VII. We can say that this is a short autobiographical Italian sonnet dealing with his prolonged education, moral and intellectual dilemma. Milton faced many ups and downs during his seven years of education (1625–1632 AD). “he was disappointed by and sharply critical of the education he received at Cambridge University. . . . he felt alienated from the curriculum and from his fellow students, finding, he lamented, “almost no intellectual companions here” (Lewalski 15).

Milton had written the anxious sonnet “How soon hath Time”, shortly after his twenty-fourth birthday (December 9, 1632) recalling his twenty-third year. The sonnet explores a psychological and spiritual crisis occasioned by his birthday. He laments his delayed development in relation to more “timely-happy spirits” such as his friends Diodati or Edward King – in terms broad enough to refer to personal, career, and poetic development. The sonnet characterizes “Time” as a thief stealing away his youth: his “late spring” has brought no “bud or blossom” of accomplishment. At age 24 he sees himself as not yet a man: his external semblance belies his lack of “inward ripeness”–intellectual and spiritual maturity–as well as his lack of the achievements that should attend maturity (Lewalski 60).

In the octave, he asserts that his days are passing hastily; they are flying like a bird. He is a devout believer in God, and he believes that poetic talent comes from God. He considers that the divine inspiration has been vouchsafed by God to write poetry. Milton had spent his earlier years reading many languages. He had a good command of English, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic, and Syriac. Milton felt too immature, inexperienced, and frustrated at being unable to maintain aesthetic life after learning so many languages and cultures. He says that “late spring no bud or blossom shew’th,” which means he has not accomplished anything. Milton metaphorically compares “spring” to youth and “bud or blossom” to his poetry or talent. He has grown mature, but he has not produced anything extraordinary. Milton had a frail appearance; people used to call him “The Lady of Christ’s.” He confesses this notion by saying “my semblance might deceive the truth.”

Milton indicates two Biblical allusions in the sestet which are “The Parable of the Talents” and “Laborers in the Vineyard”. According to “The Parable of the Talents”, a master summons his servants who have entrusted his property. He gives five talents to the first servant; here talent means a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer, two talents to the second servant, and one talent to the third servant. He gives each of them according to their ability. Then, the master goes somewhere for a long time. He who has received five talents, earns extra five talents by trading them, he who has received two talents, makes extra two talents, but he who has received one talent, dugs in the ground and hides his master’s money. After a long time, the master comes and asks about his money. The first servant presents ten talents and the second presents four talents. The master calls them “faithful servant” but the third servants returns his master’s one talent. The master gets enraged because he hasn’t done anything with his talent. The master calls him “wicked and slothful servant!” and says, “take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness” (ESV Bible Matt. 25:14-30). Milton wants to be a “faithful servant” of the God and wants to please his master by investing his talents, but the time is stolen.

According to “Laborers in the Vineyard”, a master hires some laborers for his vineyard. He promises to give a denarius a day; a denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer. The master hires laborers of the third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, and eleventh hour. He calls the laborers of eleventh, ninth, sixth hours respectively and pays a denarius. But those who are hired at first also gets a denarius, they start grumbling at the master saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But the master replies to them saying, “I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (ESV Bible Matt. 20:1-16) This parable shows the generosity and grace of the God which is equal for everyone. Milton has received equally measured grace from the God like others. But he feels unable to use His grace properly. The two parables enlighten us that the “Task-Master” assigns works for us; it is not our own self-serving wishes, we are liable to our works, and we must use our talents on time.

The sestet introduce new anxieties: the Miltonic speaker must have “grace” to use his Time and God’s gifts well, under the ever-watchful eye of a strict and exacting God, “my great Taskmaster.” the theme of exact fulfillment of a divinely predestined lot is imaged in the sonnet form that is itself “in strictest measure even” (Lewalski 60) Milton presents hope in the final lines. The “Taskmaster eye” symbolizes the will or design of the God. His maturity will be strictly or adequately measured according to the will of God. The maturity that comes to him will be according to the purpose that he has to serve whether it is mean purpose or higher purpose. Wherever time and destiny leads him, it will be the will of God. If he is able to use the talent appropriately, it will be served the design of his Taskmaster, the God. The rhyming pattern of the sonnet is ABBA ABBA in the octave and ABC, BAC in the sestet. This sonnet differs from other sonnets in the rhyming pattern.

There is a variation in the sestet. We can find the unity of thought in the octave. The mood is that of unhappiness, and the mood changes in sestet with the line “yet be it.” The ninth line is also the turning point of the sonnet. His outlook changes from non-religious to religious. He regards as true that “the will of Heaven” falls upon him. He does not need to be anxious and dissatisfied. God has the plan for him, he should trust him and he must go wherever the time leads him. He concludes the sonnet by assuring himself that his life and creativity being is directed by the “great Taskmaster”. That’s why he humbly accepts whatever his God makes him do. Milton’s mindset seems inconspicuous before writing Paradise Lost. The sonnet thematizes on Milton’s fear of time which is hastily passing because he has not achieved anything outstanding to say. The sonnet demonstrates a hunger for achievement.

In conclusion, both personal and Biblical allusions help to create the meaning of the sonnet. It’s very hard to fathom the sonnet without knowing his life and thoughts. We can see the exasperation of his age and artistic life; but his sudden impulses and aberrations also disclose the commitment towards the God, time and poetry.

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