Updated date:

Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Herrick

Robert Herrick

Introduction and Text of "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"

In Robert Herrick's carpe diem poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," the speaker is advising young women to marry while they are still young and capable of attracting a mate. The speaker’s stance is the simple, common belief that the stage of life called "youth" is the best for certain life activities.

Generally, youthful women are more attractive than older ladies, and thus the younger women are more capable of attracting a life mate. The speaker is then comparing metaphorically the youth of the young women to that of a rosebud; like the flowers that are here one day "smiling" in their beauty and gone the next into decay and death, those young women, too, will remain vibrant with youth for only a short time, and then they can expect, like the rose, to dry up and die.

The speaker, therefore, commands the young women not to be "coy"—reminiscent of Andrew Marvell’s pleading with his "coy mistress"—they should not engage in any behavior that will delay their accepting any legitimate marriage proposal. He feels that if they remain coy and put off marriage and lose the prime of life, they will just have to endure existence as if puttering in limbo.

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

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 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.

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.

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.

Reading of "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"

Commentary

The speaker is commanding young unmarried women to hurry up and marry before they are past the prime of life, when marriage is most necessary and most possible for women.

First Stanza: Get Married While You Can

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 speaker's opening command rings out with a bit of irony, as he commands the young women to "gather [their] rosebuds," while they still are able to do so. However, marriage results in the "deflowering" of both men and women as they engage in s*xual intercourse. Perhaps a less ironic command might be "spread out your rose petals while you can."

However, the gathering of rosebuds is obviously meant metaphorically, as in the phrase "stop to smell the roses." "Rosebuds" also metaphorically standing in for the youthful stage of life when the bodies of the nubile young virgins are most vibrant. The buds of roses are beautiful while they are still buds, but they will be withering up soon and "dying." Both they physical increments of both roses and virgins will age and fade away. Like a rose that is past its prime, they young woman will wither in physical appearance as she move through to her final years.

A common, stereotypical view on this issue is that for a woman to die with hymen in tact is a dreadful state of affairs. Women who grow old transform from supple young buds into decaying flowers, and that state of physical reality makes it more difficult to attract a partner. The speaker, therefore, wishes to save these young women from a loveless, s*xless life; thus, he is insisting that they marry before they grow old and lose their nubile, fresh qualities.

Second Stanza: Racing of the Sun

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker commits a rather unpoetic sin as he redundantly refers to the sun both metaphorically and then literally naming the metaphor’s vehicle, "The glorious lamp of heaven" and literally "the sun." It is obvious that the redundancy is committed for the purpose of adhering a rime onto the third line: "The sooner will his race be run."

The speaker thus wants to compare the virgin's run through life to the sun's run through the heavens during the day. The higher the sun moves the closer he is to setting. And while in reality there is no such thing a "setting" for the sun, the beauty of the as yet still young virgins will, in fact, run its course and set and then they will no longer be marriageable.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Third Stanza: The Best Stage of Life

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 speaker now offers his opinion regarding humanity and age. He insists that the first stage of life is the best because in youth the blood is "warmer. Warm blood acts metaphorically for activity. It is young people who are stereotypically considered the more active member of the life stages. Young people retain a nervous energy that must be dissipated in movement, activities that preserve life but also make life worth living.

If a young person spends her time unwisely, that time is being misspent, according to this speaker. Life for these ladies, if they fail to marry, will become "worse," for time will do its damage to their physical appearance, and that will be the "worst" thing that could happen.

Fourth Stanza: Once Past Their Prime

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.

With such dire warnings, the speaker hopes to save these young women from a miserable later life. They should not "be coy" but hurry up and give themselves in matrimony so they can escape the limbo of torment that awaits them in old age.

Once they are past their "prime," all they can do is exist, and that existence will be like lingering in limbo. If they wait until they are past their prime, that is past the first, best stage of life, they can no longer look forward to a happier life. This speaker believes these young woman will be stuck in an inferior situation, if they remain without a husband to care for them.

Incidentally, the poet, Robert Herrick, never married.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: what is the poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" about?

Answer: The speaker is urging young women to get married while they are still young, fresh, warm, and lovely enough to attract a man.

Question: Can you identify some examples of personification in Robert Herrick's poem?

Answer: In Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," there are two examples of personification: "this same flower that smiles" and "sooner will his race be run."

Question: Symbolically, how are people connected to elements in the natural world? Specifically, address the poem's use of flowers and the sun.

Answer: In Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins," the second stanza finds the speaker waxing redundant as he refers to the sun both metaphorically and literally: "The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun." It is obvious that the redundancy is committed for the purpose of adhering a rime onto the third line: "The sooner will his race be run." The speaker thus wants to compare the virgin's run through life to the sun's run through the heavens during the day. The higher the sun moves the closer he is to setting. And while in reality there is no such thing as "setting" for the sun, the beauty of the poor little virgins will, in fact, run its course and set and then they are screwed (ironic pun intended)!

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... ."

Question: What text is related to carpe diem in Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"?

Answer: In Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," the speaker's carpe diem poem offers advice and a command to young unmarried women to hurry up and marry before they become old and haggard, and thus so undesirable that they are unable to attract a mate.

Question: Comment on the efficacy of Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" as a carpe diem poem?

Answer: The carpe diem advice of Robert Herrick's poem rings profoundly sexist in today's culture. Of course, even worse is its agist stance. However, even today "agism" is alive and well and unnoticed as denigrating even by the most ardent politically correct. Observe how older political candidates are treated. The body politic demands of them complete health records while it is completely within the realm of possibility that younger candidates could be less healthy than older ones. Just recall John F. Kennedy, who was elected president while still in the early forties. Today if even mentioned, his health record might be disqualifying. Of course, of a young man in his early forties, no one would think to question the health status. Yes, ageism is alive and well in the American Twenty-First Century.

Question: Does the speaker's advice in Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," still apply today in the twenty-first century?

Answer: The speaker's advice in Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" has never applied in any time period, nor will it ever.

Question: What would happen to the argument in Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," if we were to rearrange the first three stanzas?

Answer: In Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," nothing would happen if we rearrange the poem's stanzas in any other order, for the simple reason that Herrick is not engaging in an "argument," but instead he is just giving advice by likening a woman's aging to other aging features in nature.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles