The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is a short lyric poem that at first reading seems to be simply a call to young women to enjoy life, particularly its physical pleasures, while they are young.
Robert Herrick is considered one of the circle of poets (sometimes called the “sons of Ben”) that gathered around poet and playwright Ben Jonson in London in the early seventeenth century. Herrick became a country pastor in 1629, but when upon the advent of the English Civil War he remained loyal to his king, he was ousted from his post by the Puritans, who closed the theaters and taverns—and eventually executed the king. This political exile deprived Herrick of his living and cut him off from the possibility of returning to London. It is hard to tell when Herrick poems such as “Delight in Disorder,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” and this one were actually written, but since they were published together in 1648, only a year after Herrick was removed from his post, they may constitute a kind of challenge to Puritan strictures.
The title of the poem begins the address to the virgins. To “make much of time” is both to make something happen while time is passing and to pay attention to its passage. In the first stanza, one use to be made of time is to collect flowers before they are yet in full bloom, because time passes so quickly that soon new flowers will be withered on the vine.
The idea of the passage of time is given...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The four stanzas of this poem are quatrains (each has four lines). These are “hymn” or “common” stanzas, since they take the form most often found in traditional hymns: a metrical pattern of four iambic feet in the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth lines, and the regular rhyme scheme of abab. It is likely that it was intentional on Herrick’s part to adapt a church form to his very secular theme.
The stanzaic form is given a sense of lushness and superfluity by the hypermetrical syllable at the end of each second and fourth line. The final syllable is not part of the three feet of the line, but seems to pack it with sound; it is also probably not an accident that these syllables have in each case what is called a “feminine” rhyme.
The iambic pentameter is nearly perfect, although the strength of the stressed syllables varies enough for the poem not to be monotonous. Two variations are worth noting. Both syllables of “gather,” the first word of line one and the first foot of the metrical pattern, have nearly the same stress value, which establishes a sense of the imperative from the outset. The fifth line contains two implied elisions: “glorious” metrically must be “glor’ous” and “heaven,” “heav’n.” Leaving extra syllables that require contraction in the line generates the sense that the sun’s passage is both unusually lengthy and unaccountably shortened.
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Dylan Thomas wrote in such a fiercely personal style about such narrowly personal themes that there is hardly any relationship at all to be found between his poetry and the times in which he lived. Critic Jacob Korg noted in a 1965 study of Thomas’s work that “he was occupied with introspections that lie outside of time and place ... his style owes comparatively little to tradition or example.” Thomas grew up in a middle-class family, in a seaside town in the south of Wales; his father was the senior English master in the local grammar school; he lived in London during the Second World War; he was a chronic alcoholic, who stole from his friends and lied to them, was loud and offensive in public, and died of poisoning from drinking too much too fast one day. These facts of his life are well known and often repeated, but they can only be found in his poetry—if one looks for them—with a loose imagination.
Welsh Tradition: Like the traditional poetry of Wales, Thomas’s work displays two tendencies that might seem to the casual reader to contradict each other: an intuitive, mystical religious sense and a strong controlling hand. Wales, along England’s western border, has a traditional poetic form known as the eisteddfod, which was used by druidic cults and in religious worship of nature. It has a strong structure and, like any prose written primarily for recitation and not reading, has a strong, elaborate meter. These facets are not...
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“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is composed of four stanzas, each consisting of four lines of verse. Each stanza is composed of a single sentence. The poem employs end rhymes, the rhyming pattern being abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh.
In this poem, Herrick favors the trochaic foot, a unit of two syllables in which the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. Scanning the first line of the poem, written in tetrameter form, reveals the dominance of this unit:
Ga ther / ye rose / buds while / ye may.
Trochaic feet are often difficult to use in a long poem as they tend to create a rocking rhythm. They are appropriate in this short poem with its short line length, where the brevity of form echoes the speaker’s awareness of the brevity of life that underlies the poem’s theme.
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Compare and Contrast
- 1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes against the manufacturers they worked for, including Westinghouse, General Motors, the meat packers, and the railroads.
1981: 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by President Ronald Reagan, marking the start of a new era of pro-employer “union-busting.”
Today: Labor unions have the lowest membership since the 1940s and, in many cases, have little effect on wages and benefits being offered.
- 1947: The first casino was built in Las Vegas, Nevada—the only state to allow legalized gambling.
1978: Atlantic City, New Jersey, legalized casino gambling in order to bring in tax revenues.
Today: Most states have some form of legalized casino gambling
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Topics for Further Study
Write a poem that explains why youth is better than age, using examples from nature to prove your point. Give your poem a light, buoyant, youthful tone, as Herrick does.
Compare this poem to “Virtue,” by George Herbert. What is the perspective each poem takes toward death? Toward youth? Would the speaker in Herbert’s poem agree with the one in Herrick’s, or would he think that gathering rosebuds is pointless? Would Herrick’s speaker agree with Herbert’s?
How does the tone of the poem differ in the first and last stanzas? What does this tell you about the poem’s speaker?
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What Do I Read Next?
Like “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Herrick’s poem “To a Gentlewoman Objecting to His Gray Hairs” (1648) explores the effects of time on physical beauty.
Herrick’s poem “To Blossoms” (1648) uses symbols found in the natural world to suggest the eventual decay and death of all living things.
“Upon a Delaying Lady” (1648), another of Herrick’s carpe diem poems, features a speaker urging his lady to “come away” with him before his love turns to “frost or snow.”
The poem “To His Coy Mistress” (1681) by Andrew Marvell, one of Herrick’s contemporaries, also presents a speaker urging a young woman to adopt the “carpe diem” mentality but in a more metaphysical way than Herrick’s.
John Donne’s poem “The Flea” (1633) also features a speaker trying to woo a stubborn woman; the poem is remarkable for its humorous and complex metaphysical approach to the problem.
Christopher Marlowe’s immensely popular “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599) is a poem in which a male speaker tries to entice his love to live with him forever in a pastoral setting. Unlike the speaker of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” however, the shepherd’s reasoning is based on a love of beauty, rather than a fear of time.
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1916) explores the theme of fleeting youth in a melancholy tone.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arms, George, “‘To the Virgins,’” in Explicator Cyclopedia, Vol. 2, Quadrangle Books, 1968, pp. 158–59.
Herrick, Robert, The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, Oxford University Press, 1956.
Rollin, Roger, “Robert Herrick,” in Twayne’s English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
———, Robert Herrick, Twayne Publishing, 1992.
Swardson, H. R., “Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth,” in Poetry and the Fountain of Light: Observations on the Conflict between Christian and Classical Traditions in Seventeenth- Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 40–63.
Wentersdorf, Karl P., “Herrick’s Floral Imagery,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. XXXVI, 1964, pp. 69–81.
Witherspoon, Alexander, and Frank Warnke, Seventeenth- Century Prose and Poetry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
For Further Study
Cannon, John, and Ralph Griffiths, The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy, Oxford University Press, 1988. This comprehensive overview devotes approximately fifty pages to Charles I, the Civil War, and the Restoration.
Fowler, Alastair, Robert Herrick, Oxford University Press, 1980. This lecture delivered to the British Academy examines the overall design of Hesperides, Herrick’s volume of verse, as well as Herrick’s use...
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