As written by poets during the 17th and 18th centuries, these poems were composed to encourage readers, or a specific listener, to take advantage of every moment of their lives. The fleeting nature of life and love are often at the forefront of these carpe diem works.
The term originated in Horace’s Odes, a series of poems written in 65 BCE. He wrote:
Scale back your long hopes
to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and
is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.
He speaks clearly and effectively about the importance of “seizing the day” and not spending too much time thinking about the future.
Carpe Diem pronunciation: car-peh dee-uhm
Explore Carpe Diem
Carpe Diem Definition
Carpe diem, Latin for “seize the day,” is a term used to refer to a genre of poems that seek to inspire readers to make the most of their lives. They’re generally meant to remind anyone reading the text that life is incredibly short and that everyone is headed towards their inevitable end.
The best-known carpe diem poems were written by the cavalier poets of English King Charles I’s court during the 18th century and the metaphysical poets like Andrew Marvell. Carpe diem poems are still written today and are inspired by anything from one’s personal brush with death to someone’s religious vocation. They might also be directed at someone specific, encouraging them to take any action to better their life.
Examples of Carpe Diem Poems
To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is perhaps Marvell’s best-known poem. It is also the most commonly cited example of a carpe diem poem. The poem is based on a conceit or a type of comparison that is made between two objects which are nothing alike. Therefore, the relationship between the two things being compared is completely and utterly confused.
It is a beautiful love poem based on a gentleman wooing his mistress, hoping to convince her to sleep with him. The unnamed mistress refuses, and his response is to tell her that if he had enough time, he could spend entire centuries admiring her beauty and innocence. But he doesn’t. Here are a few lines:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
Marvell was tapping into the tenants of the carpe diem genre of poetry by depicting a speaker encouraging his lover to sleep with him. They only have so much time together, and they might as well make the most of it.
Explore Andrew Marvell’s poetry.
‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ is another very well-known example of a carpe diem poem. In the text, Herrick asks a specific reader or group of readers to “seize the day” and make the most of it. In this case, he’s speaking to women who must “seize the day” before their beauty fades.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that a woman should do everything she can while young to take advantage of the love others want to give her. She will be more appreciated while she is young and beautiful. Therefore, she should “gather [her] rose-buds” or the things in life she needs before time takes over. Once “Time” has made its mark on her, she will be lost to the happy possibilities of life. Here are a few lines:
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
These famous opening lines are followed by:
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.
Read more Robert Herrick poems.
Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke
‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ by Rainer Maria Rilke is another interesting example of a carpe diem poem. In the text, the poet details the remaining beauty and power of a damaged sculpture missing its head and legs. No one knows what the head of the sculpture looked like, but that it must have been majestic. The remaining torso more than makes up for what the sculpture is lacking. In fact, it still seems complete. The carpe diem aspects of the poem come into play towards the end of the text:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The poem ends with the speaker suggesting that the sculpture has the ability to observe him. It judges him on the life he’s been living. This inspires him to tell readers that the sculpture will make them want to change their lives. That is how much power it has in its remnants.
Read more Rainer Maria Rilke poems.
‘I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl’ by Emily Dickinson
This lesser-known Dickinson poem examines how people choose to perform the minutia of daily life without an end. The poet uses an analogy of a woman doing chores to describe how people drag on doing mundane things before fulfilling life’s greater purpose. She feels the life between birth and death as miles and miles of nothingness. Here are a few lines:
Therefore—we do life’s labor—
Though life’s Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—
The theme of ‘Carpe Diem’ by Robert Frost is to seize tomorrow rather than today. He writes the following lines: “But bid life seize the present? / It lives less in present / Than in the future always.”
You can start a carpe diem poem however you want. It’s possible to begin by stating an issue or to immediately jump into reminding the reader how important it is to live every day to the fullest.
The opposite carpe diem is “carpe noctem.” It means “seize the night.”
Related Literary Terms
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
- Foreshadow: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Read: Carpe Diem by Robert Frost
- Listen: The Meaning of Carpe Diem
- Listen: An Explanation of Delight in Disorder by Robert Herrick