“On Time,” by John Milton (1646)

ON TIME by John Milton

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb'd,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum'd,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t'whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav'nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthly grosnes quit,
Attir'd with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
    Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
SONNET 64  by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defac'd
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see downraz'd, 
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate -
That Time will come and take my love away.
  This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
  But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

This is our first encounter with Milton in the history of this blog. Arriving hence is to arrive at a great mountain, an Everest, equal to Shakespeare in his own way. And, indeed, I will attempt a sort of comparison between Milton and Shakespeare, or between a couple of poems written by each. Shakespeare’s, in this case, I have already written an essay on some time ago, on the 64th sonnet. It, like Milton’s poem here, reflects on the nature of time and its relation to the mortal. Time has an abstract meaning, of course, in the mathematics of physics; but it has another sort of meaning for those who are doomed to die. Our clock, ticking away inside, is not as loud as a mechanical clock, but it certainly would mean so much more to us, if we could but pay attention to it. I remember often when I was young listening to clocks at night. My grandparents had a few, including a grandfather clock, that were arranged here and there among the furnishings of their living and dining rooms. And when it was dark and quiet, and only the clocks could be heard, they were eerie to my ears – ticking, ticking away the time. Now, in hindsight, I think I might be able to guess why those noises were so disturbing to me, although I was then, like all children, a conscious coracle on a far deeper ocean. It is because they mark, in an unavoidable way for our senses, the inevitability of the passage of time, which always leads one way from birth until death. They haunt us with a consistent reminder that this all will end, and that nothing, not even clocks themselves, can endure forever.

During the day, of course, they are easily ignored. They turn into background noise as the day’s bustle goes on, and meanwhile the sun slowly keeps its own time above our heads, and usually out of sight over our rooves. It is only at night that the removal of other more distracting sounds, more varied in their capacity to capture our attention, leads to the unavoidable, the hearing of the tick-tock, and the shock of the chimes on the hours. In a way, it is unnatural for us to be reminded literally every second that the moments of our life our fading away. Our ancestors, for their part, enjoyed the cosmic clock, expansive overhead like some great vaulted cathedral, a structure which itself can only imitate the heavenly things arranged above it. And that is how we all used to keep time, with that silent clock above, that moved so slowly it could barely be seen, certainly not by the seconds, but only by the hours. A much more merciful clock it seems to me; ours are aural and existential racking devices, Chinese-water torture for the ears.

And so I have sometimes wondered if clocks increased the urgency of the dread of mortality for modern people. Shakespeare in his sonnet refers not to clocks but to far slower and more ancestral processes, images of long and slow decaying. But he wrote in the century prior to Milton. The pendulum clock was invented in 1656 by Huygens and came to use in England not long after. And, at first, I assumed that the proliferation of mechanical clocks might explain Milton’s use of the metaphor of “the Plummet’s pace.” But this poem, ‘On Time,’ was published in the 1640s. “the Plummets pace,” certainly does seem to refer to a heavy weight, marking the moments of time. And my guess still is that it does. The problem is that the internet research I have managed to accomplish for this post (scrapping between blog posts and Wikipedia) hasn’t revealed any useful knowledge on this subject that I can sort as relevant. And, apparently, no commentator I have read has taken the time to exegete the meaning of the word “Plummet” as used in this context by Milton. As it is, it is unlikely I will personally find the exact answer to this query as of writing this post. My guess for now is that Milton might be using a somewhat esoteric reference, revealing his mechanical knowledge, certain snippets of which were probably unknown to the general public. It’s not as if Milton was incapable of some obscurity.

Probably the greatest difference between Shakespeare’s and Milton’s poems is the existential perspective found in each: Shakespeare writing as one would expect within a late Renaissance context, and Milton as a Puritan within an explicitly Christian framework. Milton is eschatological, dealing in the hopeful certainties of uncertain revelation, while Shakespeare deals in the uncanny certainties of observation. So Shakespeare,

	. . . When I have seen such interchange of state,
	Or state itself confounded to decay;
	Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate -
	That Time will come and take my love away.
		This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
		But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Then Milton,

	For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb'd,
	And last of all, thy greedy self consum'd,
	Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss . . .
	When once our heav'nly-guided soul shall clime,
	Then all this Earthly grosnes quit,
	Attir'd with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
		Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.

Really, of course, these two poems are not that alike in this respect: that while they both concern the relation of time to the human, Shakespeare treats the human as mortal in relation to time, and so subservient to its domain; Milton treats what is human as immortal in relation to time, and so as expanding beyond the territory of its rule. Time is the very fundamental pattern of Being in the former case, in which all things subsist, and there is no other pattern to supercede it. Time, then, is the Cosmos, and the Cosmos is All-encompassing. For Milton, though, the fundamental pattern of Being is the God of the Christian tradition, who is himself the creator of the superhuman cosmic order, including Time. In this case, even the Cosmos itself does not have to be collapsed into one overarching thing, namely, the very basic fact that it changes. One could shift this slightly and believe that this property occupies a special place, perhaps as a Universal in the proper Platonic or realist sense. And it may be that Milton, in his dramatic fashion, does something just like that. Note that he capitalizes certain abstract qualities in his poem, whether conceived of in more negative or positive terms: so Death and Chance, but also Eternity (which his contrasted with Time) and Joy, etc. And while this sweeping use of personification certainly is marshalled as any literary device would be, for poetic effect, I suspect there is a metaphysical underpinning for it. A perusal of Paradise Lost would reveal an abundance of fallen and unfallen angels, often personifications of cosmic realities or forces. It is important to note that it is important to neither lose an angel in personifying it as an “ordinary” psychic phenomenon (however much some authors, of philosophy or poetry, have found it necessary to do so) nor by abstracting it out of relevant existence, leaving it bloodless and so dead. I would argue that it is precisely the pushing of the Human into the realm of these great Abstractions or Patterns that is the key motion or dynamic of Milton’s poem. And, as I have indicated, “Abstractions” is probably not the right term. Perhaps Cosmic Patterns or Figures is better, which are not the sapping of concreteness, but its source as manifested in the phenomenological. That is, whatever is present to us in experience, is present by virtue of abiding in Chance, in Death, and in Joy, Love, and Truth.

Now, whether or not Milton’s view is correct or palatable to the reader must be left for them to decide, but he was well read enough in his Plato and other philosophers so-inclined to have expressed something along these lines. I admit, though, that I have spelled it out for my own eye here, and in my own style and for my own comprehension. I think it can at least be said that Shakespeare either does not share Milton’s gestalt, or if he shares some of it, he hides it well throughout his corpus and not just in the 64th sonnet.

I am coming to the end of what I have to say for now on either of these two poems, although I think it is important to end on Milton, who may have been slightly neglected in this, his debut appearance on the blog. It was unavoidable if I was to include Shakespeare, of all poets, in the discussion, however brief. I think in this case, we are allowed a glimpse into the heart of Milton’s soul; not into his habits or personality, mind you, but perhaps somewhat deeper than even that. In the biography of Milton, I think it has often been noted that he was not exactly a joyful man, nor even necessarily a kind one. Yet, it is hard to find a better poetic expression of the fundamentals of what is particular about the Christian view of redemption, discovered as it is by so many within the experience of joy and hope. The Puritans are often done the disservice of imagining them joyless. Whether any of them were, or managed to be, joyless is neither here nor there. The joyless are everywhere and at every time. Certainly theologically and, empirically speaking, experientially they were rather intent on emphasizing, if anything, the necessity of what we might call positive emotions in relation to the condition of being or becoming a Christian. Indeed, maybe more than any among the Protestants, they pioneered the fashioning of that particular subjective world, the inner life of the Christian as would then become familiar to evangelical-type Protestantism for the centuries that would follow. And that, I think, is one aspect that is fascinating about Milton: that his poetry is so utterly infused with “learning,” particularly in classics and the Bible, and so with the ancient, and that this ancient-matter is used to express sentiments that anticipate so much of the modern milieu, even if it is still couched in these explicitly Christian terms, and in such an archaic and yet novel style. I usually tend to think of Shakespeare as the better poet – and I have no doubt that he is the better narrator and dramatist as well – but, still, Milton’s power is so oddly unique that he cannot but impress. And that, I think, is the primary difference between the two writers, which is seen as well in the difference between these two poems, if only slightly: that Shakespeare is excellent as a poet, but Milton is excellent as Milton, and that while he may be copied, he can never be genuinely imitated.

Featured image: ‘Head of Milton,’ by William Blake

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Poetical Fragments