In reading Milton’s works and some of his life, I am continuously struck by how he appears to be a seventeenth century Millennial—he is idealistic, loves the Humanities and social justice (to a degree), lives with his parents, and then enters politics when his artistic pursuits mature. If this is an incorrect view of Milton, then a sonnet like “How Soon Hath Time”, is not exactly helping Milton’s image.
The poem functions as a defense of Milton’s educational pursuits. “All is, if I have the grace to use it so, / As ever in my great task-maker’s eye” (Lines 13-14). As the explanatory notes argue, “all” refers to “ripeness”, whereas “ever” is alleged to mean “eternity”. This means that Milton’s defense takes on theological underpinnings: how can he do anything other than study when God has directed his life to this ripe moment (“It shall be in strictest measure, ev’n” (Line 10)); God’s will stands outside of time but imparts preordination as a function of free will. In other words, Milton is appealing to the idea that if he were to stop his pursuit of knowledge, it would be somehow going against God’s will.
I saw this doesn’t help Milton’s image because, let’s face it, any contemporary young person who is defending their own life path, is going to use similar appeals to authority. Such appeals may not rest on God, per se, but they will rest on equally powerful foundations (mental well-being, economic security, etc.) and have a resonance—both Milton and the modern young person see their lives as perfectly balanced between professionalism and personal engagements, when what is likely true is probably not quite so even (“ev’n”).