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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

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

The carpe diem advice of Robert Herrick's poem rings profoundly sexist in today's culture. Of course, even worse is its ageist stance. However, even today "ageism" 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.

Robert Herrick's poem, "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time," is spewing out an egregious conglomeration of both sexism and ageism, as the speaker urges young women to get married while they are still young, fresh, warm, and lovely enough to attract a mate.

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 become old and haggard.

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.

A perverse irony hovers over the speaker's opening command, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." Marriage results in the deflowering of men and women as they engage in sexual intercourse. Thus a more suitable command might be "spread out your rose petals while you can." Irony notwithstanding, the speaker surely is also suggesting that his listeners think of "rosebuds" metaphorically for marriage. He might have in mind even the nosegay held by brides as they trundle down the aisle to join their grooms for the taking of the marriage vows.

However, "rosebuds" also metaphorically stand in for the youth on the bodies of the nubile young virgins. The "rosebuds" are beautiful in youth, but they will be withering up soon and "dying." Both roses and virgins shrivel up and fade away, after all. And for a woman to die with hymen in tact is a dreadful, dastardly situation! Women who grow old transform from supple young buds into old stink weeds, and of course, no man will want to marry an old weed. The speaker thinks he is doing these young gals a great service by insisting they marry before they dry up like an old weed.

Second Stanza: Redundancy of 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.

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.")

Third Stanza: Old Age Sucks, Dude!

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 then pushes his notion that youth is where it's at, man. Being old sucks really loud. The older you are the worse your life becomes. If you live to be old—especially if you are a woman, and more especially if you are a woman without a husband—your spinsterhood will drag you through your life like a mouse caught in cat's mouth.

In youth you have such warm blood; in old age not so much. You become exceedingly worse as you get older. You become exceedingly dull. And old unmarried woman is not worth the pennies she carries in her near-empty purse.

Fourth Stanza: Saving the Damsels

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 as old hags.

One further irony regarding this poem: the poet, Robert Herrick, never married!

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

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