“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick

Word Meanings
carpe diem – (Latin) seize the day, or as the Egyptian Ptahhotep wrote, “Follow your dream as long as you live, do not lessen the time of following desire, for wasting time is an abomination of the spirit”.
tarry – v. delay
prime – n. the best stage of a thing or process
coy – adj. making a pretence of shyness or modesty that is intended to be alluring but is often regarded as irritating.

About The Poet: Robert Herrick was born into a family of London goldsmiths. Herrick went to Cambridge and graduated at 29 when he began serving as a military chaplain. Later, Herrick was evicted from his parish by the Puritans. He was allowed back into the church only after the Restoration of Charles II.

Summary of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”

Herrick’s sixteenth-century poem“To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” dramatizes the conflict between committing to marriage and the swift passage of time. The poem’s speaker, a young man, uses an anxious tone and images of passing time to persuade a woman to be mindful that time will not wait for her and that her commitment needs to be made soon. He reminds her that her youth will pass as easily as the wilting flowers, the passing of a day, and the running of a race. She’s going to lose the warmth of youth as time still wins. He eventually reminds her that being “coy” will make her youth vanish, and she will always be waiting for what is never going to happen. In the use of the metaphors, the personification, the rhyme and the structure of the stanzas, Herrick conveys his theme of carp diem.

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The first stanza of the poem stressed the concept of the swift passage of time through a flower metaphor. Herrick starts his poem with an urgent phrase, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / Old Time is still a fly’n” (1,2). The flowers being new or young are reinforced by the word “smiling,” and the reminder that tomorrow “they will die” suggests that time will not end. “Old Time” is personified as shown by the upper case. Referring to Time as “Old” provides a strong contrast to the swiftness but the relentlessness of the youth. The rhyme scheme abab emphasises the words “a-fly” and “be dying,” and shows the difference between the two. The standard metre gives the poem a quick pace, representing the rapid passage of time.

Moving away from the warning of time moving quickly, the next stanza starts a sequence of metaphors that further demonstrate the idea that time is waiting for no one. “The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun”/the higher it gets,” is the picture of a passing day (5,6). Using the words “glorious” to characterise the sun appeals to the sense of sight, and the speaker continues the image of the sun mingled with the image of the “race be run” with the sun setting on the next line: “The faster his race is run,/and the closer he is to set” (7,8). The sense of intent is clear here, and the continuous pattern of rhyme and metre that is consistent with the first pushes the poem in the same unstoppable manner. The use of the words “higher” and “nearer” gives the feeling that the young girl is gaining time, and the rhyme keeps speeding up, just as time goes by quickly.


Answer to Questions

Q. How do you respond to Herrick’s images?

Answer: Since the images are so clear and vivid, they may capture the imagination. The images of rosebuds and the sun convey the passage of time-rosebuds fade quickly and the sunsets at night.

Q. What advice does the speaker give readers in lines 1-4?

Answer: The speaker advises readers to enjoy the rosebuds – the joys of youth – because the days are short and opportunities missed now may be lost forever.

Q. In the first stanza, Herrick writes of rosebuds and the brevity of their beauty. For what are rosebuds actually a metaphor?
Answer: Herrick uses rosebuds as a metaphor for a woman’s virginity.

Q. The second stanza contains examples of what two poetic devices?
Answer: The sun is described as “the glorious lamp of heaven,” an example of simile. In the second line, it is referred to as “he” and as running a race, an example of personification.

Q. What advice does the speaker give to the virgins he is addressing in the last stanza?
Answer: The speaker tells the women not to be shy, but to “use your time,” presumably by finding a man to love, and to marry him if possible. He warns them that if they lose their virginity before they marry, they may be alone forever.

Q. In what ways does the poem reflect ideas present in Ben Jonson’s “To Celia”?
Answers may vary. Example: Both poems are attempts at getting women to act on their love for selfish purposes. Additionally, both poems comment on the need for swift and decisive action.

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