Milton’s sonnet “On Time” ends with the triumphant vaunt, “… Truth and Peace and Love shall ever shine / About the supreme Throne / Of Him to’whose happy-making sight alone, / When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall climb, Then all this earthly grosnes quit, Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit, Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and Thee, O Time.”
What follows is my own, perhaps merely whimsical, conjecture: this sonnet, which Milton possibly deemed the lesser of his two on the subject, was intended to be written on a clock case. I imagine, likely in a romantic flight of fancy, the blind bard having written or having revised this poem at an advanced age (though commentators in fact do not; based on its style, they date it early in his career). That said, in my undoubtedly capricious reading of it, I imagine the poet taking a moment to write (or revise) this poem for posterity, one that he knew might never be discovered but, if it were, it would be only after he had been attired with stars and was sitting astride the very throne that he describes in this poem.
In any case, Milton would seem to have had his own doubts about Chance, as in his sonnet he groups it with Time and, worse yet, Death. Good heavens, what could be so bad about chance or luck or even their positive cousins, serendipity and delightful randomness? Well, I think that Milton must have figured something out, the very thing that I spoke about in last week’s blog. And death? The gloominess of death obviously needs little exegesis. But time? Well, that’s another matter.
So great a matter, in fact, that Milton devotes two entire poems to it. This one, in my view the rather more mature of the two of them, stands out to me for its powerful language. It begins, “Fly, envious time, till thy run out thy race, / Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours, / Whose speed is but the heavy plummet’s pace … .” In the continuation of this verse, he goes on to command time to glut itself (a powerful image) on what its womb devours (an even more striking one). Time, it seems, is a greedy and licentious fiend. Whatever it gains in the end turns out to be—at least for anyone who might share the poet’s point of view—so little, merely mortal dross.
Dross was as a strong word in Milton’s day as it is today. It suggests offal, scum, waste in the most hideous sense of that word. Add mortal to dross, and it is clear: it is the part of us that pertains to death. It is, or is at least partially, encompassed by what the King James Version often refers to as the “flesh.”
Milton’s sonnet then, winds up telling us that the spirit will ultimately triumph over the flesh, when once our heavenly guided souls will quit this dark world, and wide. But in the meantime, we are here. We face the tragedies of natural disasters, the sorrow of human hatred, our own outrage at our fellow human beings when they are outraged about what we deem less than outrageous, what we might even call the wrong things. In short, what bugs us is humankind’s gross failure to prioritize correctly; such prioritization is closely related to the notion of time being wasted, as all of this happens while time ticks away, however wonderful it may be to know that the subscribers to Milton’s point of view have a hope of triumphing over it one day.
What to do? Well, Milton alludes to some of the answer to that: you can’t do anything. You can only know that time is defeated in the end, and derive comfort from that; you can even mock it with imperatives (“fly,” “call,” “glut”) or deleterious adjectives such as “envious” or “greedy,” but you can’t beat it. Yet there is, perhaps, one thing you can do that Milton does not tell us here.
You can choose. You can choose not to allow it to cripple you. I’ve know some dear friends crippled by time. They could not manage it: it managed them. One lost his job because of his mismanagement of it. Another failed a college course, while another used it as an excuse for not completing the tasks set before her. Still another, appropriated it for an excuse never to marry or have a family; another, never to travel; still another, never to commit to any organization, such as church, that could take up his time, which was already, it seemed to me, in any case consuming him.
You can choose to make the most of time. If you’re married, for example, I believe that means to use your time wisely, even choose to be a certain kind of person. One might think of marriage as two folks moving in together for the first time—it is, for some, precisely that. One cannot force one’s spouse to use the time well, or even to keep his or her side of the room tidy; one can merely request it. But one can certainly use one’s own time well and one can literally and figuratively clean up his or her own side of the room. One can set an example. Therein, one can master time measuring it day by day not wasting it.
Though we don’t often see it this way, time is, in the end, much more valuable than money. Money comes and goes; time simply goes, or has Milton says, it flies—something not original with him, as it goes back to the ancient poet Virgil, who in his third Georgic wrote, “time flies, never to be recovered” (tempus fugit inreparablile tempus). So, before we can enjoy our Miltonic triumph, we have to overcome time ourselves, it seems, not necessarily in our own strength—but that is the matter of another blog—yet certainly with a good deal of our own effort. We must, as the bard once said, against “time’s thievish progress to eternity,” tidy our own side of the room, whether that be in our marriage or in our workplace. Time to get after it: time’s a wastin.’