‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ by Robert Herrick is a four stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. It was first published in 1648 in a volume titled, Hesperides. It is one of the most famous poems based on the notion of “carpe diem” or seize the day. One is extolled to live in the moment, and waste no time on frivolous pursuits in this particular philosophy.
The poet has chosen to structure this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme which follows the scheme of abab cdcd efef ghgh. This sing-song-like scheme is suited to the themes of this piece in that it allows the text to be read as a kind of fable, or story which conveys a particular message or warning. The message the speaker is hoping to spread is closer to a warning than a moral lesson.
It is the speaker’s goal that all of those who are still in the good graces of time do not squander the years they have left. He is addressing this piece to one particular type of listener or reader, a “Virgin.” From the use of this term, it is clear he is referring to any young, unmarried woman who he thinks, is wasting her beauty if not marrying as soon as possible.
Summary of To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ by Robert Herrick describes a speaker’s beliefs about impact of time on a woman’s life and the value of beauty.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that a woman should do everything she can while she is 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 on her, she will be lost to the happy possibilities of life.
In the final sections the speaker directly tells his female listeners that they need to marry as soon as possible. There is no time to waste being coy as one might end up alone.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins his directions to the “Virgins” mentioned in the title of the poem. Before embarking on an analysis of this poem a reader should be able to get a basic understanding of what it is the speaker is promoting through the title. He is interested in making sure that “Virgins” do everything they can to “Make Much of Time,” or make the most of the time they have.
He first tells the virgins that they need to “Gather” their “rose-buds” while they are still able. This line is not of the poet’s own creation, but rather comes from Ausonius or Virgil. It is in reference to a Latin phrase which asks that one utilize their beauty before it is gone. One should “gather” or pick up the beautiful items of life they may not have access to once their own beauty is gone.
No matter whether one heeds his warning or not, the speaker makes sure the reader remembers that “Time” is going to continue to fly. It is moving whether one takes advantage of it or not.
In the concluding couplet of this section it becomes clear that it is one’s own beauty the speaker does not want to go to waste. He sees time as damaging to women and that they must do everything they can to use their looks while they’re young.
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 quatrain the speaker turns to one of the natural elements of the world that tells of the passing of time, the sun. It is referred to as the “glorious lamp of heaven.” The sun is directly connected to God in that it shines his light down upon the earth. Just like God, there is no way to control it. The sun will continue to rise, getting higher and higher as if it is racing the other elements of the world.
The rising leads directly into the part of life the speaker sees women as having to fear, the “setting.” The peak of one’s life is only one more step to eventual decline.
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.
In the third stanza the speaker goes on to tell the women listening to his words that they are “best” at the age which “is the first / When youth and blood are warmer.” It is in the early days of youth a woman is most valuable. This is the period of time she should take advantage of.
If one does not do as he suggests, the time will be “spent, the worse” until time passes one by. The beauty of youth will be gone and “Time” will have control over one’s later future.
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.
The final quatrain concludes the speaker’s previous arguments and tells the women who might be listening to him they should not play games with their lives. They should not be “coy” in their decisions and interactions with men but “go marry” as soon as possible.
This is a decision he sees as being crucial to a woman’s life and happiness. She must marry while she is beautiful, or the opportunity will be lost. The “Virgin” might “forever tarry” if she loses her “prime.”