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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is a poem written by Robert Herrick in the 17th century. The poem is in the genre of carpe diem, to seize the day.

First published in 1648 in a volume of verse entitled Hesperides, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is perhaps one of the most famous poems to extol the notion of carpe diem. Carpe diem, or “seize the day,” expresses a philosophy that recognizes the brevity of life and therefore the need to live for and in the moment. Seizing the day means eating, drinking and making merry for tomorrow we shall all die. The phrase was used by classicists such as Horace, and its spirit marks the theme of Herrick’s lyric poem. Echoing Ben Jonson’s poem, “Song: To Celia,” the speaker of the poem underscores the ephemeral quality of life and urges those in their youth to actively celebrate life and its pleasures; however, the speaker does not urge “the virgins” simply to frolic adulterously, but to seek union in matrimony, thereby uniting the natural cycles of life and death with the rites and ceremonies of Christian worship. Although a very common theme in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century verse, and particularly in Cavalier poetry, the association of Christianity and carpe diem is not a traditional one; it is unique to Herrick and perhaps “natural” given Herrick’s thirty-two year career as vicar of Dean Prior, an appointment originally bestowed by King Charles I. Written during a period of great political unrest that culminated in Britain’s Civil War, the theme and the sage advice proffered by the speaker of the poem appears appropriate in this particularly transient period. The carpe diem spirit, however, has translated to modern times and is the theme of Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Robert Frost’s “Carpe Diem.”

Poem

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow 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 for ever tarry.

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