Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The reading that has been given the poem thus far can be summed up by the Latin phrase carpe diem, which means “seize the day.” In this sense, virginity is not literal, but is merely a metaphor for a kind of innocence combined with receptivity that should be exercised as much as possible before it is lost, which with experience it will be.
The sexual theme is obvious but not simple. It can be understood very differently, depending on what one takes to be the sex of the reader. The gathering of rosebuds can be a metaphor for defloration; the rising of the sun, a metaphor for male erection, and “spend,” a term for ejaculation. This reading is not merely sensual; it is also sexually threatening. Defloration is rape—that is, taking the flower of virginity from an unwilling victim. The reference to the personified sun is a reference to Apollo, famous for his attempts at ravishment. In a certain sense, then, the phrase “To the Virgins” could be understood to be a call to attack, such as Henry the Fifth’s cry of “into the breach!” in William Shakespeare’s Henry V (1600). In this sense, the “ye” addressed would be male, and the loss with which the poem is concerned is that of male potency: Women will be old before pleasure can be taken of them, the “sun” will set too soon, the energy of youth will pass, and sexual drive with it. As “Old Time” also appears personified, it is important to remember that Chronos,...
(The entire section is 556 words.)
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The Latin phrase “carpe diem” means “seize the day.” The “carpe diem” philosophy holds that one’s time on earth is shorter than one thinks and therefore must be held on to for as long as possible; those who subscribe to such a philosophy tend to value the present more than the unchangeable past or uncertain future. This attitude toward “living deep” and “sucking the marrow out of life” (as Henry David Thoreau phrased it) is a favorite theme of Herrick’s and, indeed, of many seventeenth- century poets. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” epitomizes the “carpe diem” philosophy by urging its readers—specifically, the young and naive “virgins” of the title—to make the most of the present before their youths have passed. The opening line, “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,” uses the symbol of the rosebuds to command the virgins to symbolically “seize” all the romantic experience they can because “Old time is still a-flying.” “Still” in this context means “always,” and the speaker stresses the fact that (as the saying goes) “time flies” forever. The present brings flowers that “smile” with the joy of their own beauty as well as the “glorious lamp of Heaven, the Sun,” but, like everything else, these too will fade as time progresses. In a short span of time—indeed, in a span that seems as short as a single day—the flowers will “be dying” and the sun’s “race” will...
(The entire section is 752 words.)