Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Poetry Analysis: Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time”

Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins to make much of Time” extols the ‘carpe diem’ motif, the rose being a powerful emblem of the brevity of life. ’ Carpe diem’ is a Latin phrase meaning ‘seize the day.’ It was a common theme in Cavalier poetry. The rose also symbolizes the beauty of youth and its ephemeral nature. The poem was penned in 1648 and published in a collection of verse entitled Hesperides. The theme of the poem is similar to Ben Jonson’s poem “Song: To Celia” where the speaker stresses on the transient nature of life, but advises to seek union in holy matrimony and not in adulterous association. The latter combined with the ‘carpe diem’ motif was utilized in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The combination of Christianity and the carpe diem motif is singular to Robert Herrick, and has not been employed in conventional poetry. The influence emerges from Herrick’s’ position as vicar of Dean Prior, as appointed by King Charles I. The background of the poem is the political turbulence that led to Britain’s Civil War. Therefore it emphasized the relishing of the present while it lasted.

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

The idea of gathering the rose buds underlines the idea of making hay while the sun shines; utilizing youth to the most. The rose is utilized as an extended metaphor here. Time is apostrophized as an old Man who is passing by embracing everything within his grasp. In Elizabethan slang, “dying” referred both to mortality and to orgasm.* The poet also stresses that the flower must smile as much as possible, for tomorrow may be non-existent. In other words, the poem echoes the idea of living life to the fullest.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a getting;
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
The sun is personified and is termed as’the glorious lamp of heaven.’ The poet quips that the swift rising and falling of the sun may stand for the passing of life without realization. Moreover, it may also emblematize the blooming of youth and its deterioration with the passage of time. This is an apt metaphor, as the image also connotes glow, sunshine and rays of hope.

That age is best, which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

The age that precedes the other years of life always seem to be best. Childhood that precedes youth is better than the latter as it a carefree age. As youth is spent, it becomes worse and worser. Time always seems to succeed over the former whichever comes first.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

Therefore one must not be coy and succumb to social inhibitions but utilize time wisely and appropriately. For the prime of life comes only once in one’s life, and there is no looking back. The line:” You may forever tarry” implies that one may always long for that lost opportunity and regret the same. Why later await an opportunity that exists in the now?

In Elizabethan slang, “dying” referred both to mortality and to orgasm.( Faints, fits, and fatalities from emotion in Shakespeare’s characters: survey of the canon, Heaton, Kenneth W., BMJ 2006;333:1335-1338 ,pg.23).

© Rukhaya MK 2012
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