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 god of time, seized power by castrating his rival.
If, on the other hand, one reads the poem as addressed to female virgins, then to gather rosebuds, in a sense, is to retain the flower of virginity, to gather it to oneself. The twin of the sun god, Apollo, is the moon goddess, Artemis, who is also the goddess of virginity (Ben Jonson calls her “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair” in “Hymn to Diana” from Cynthia’s Revels, 1600-1601). With the setting of the force of male dominance, the twin force of female celibacy rises. In this sense, it is virginity, one of the few forms of currency a woman had, that is to be hoarded, not lost or “spent.”
When marriage is promoted in the fourth stanza, Herrick is not making a moral distinction between fornication and sex within the sanctity of wedlock. Instead, marriage is proposed as an alternative to both sexual violence and sexual withholding, both of which are asocial and nonproductive. The injunction to “go marry” instead of to “tarry” in this sense has to do with not getting caught up in a vicious circle of mutually exclusive possibilities, but to move and grow into something that is beyond either of them.
Thus the poem is expressing a concern about the state of society. This concern also surfaces in the third stanza if one reads “age” and “times” to refer not to an individual’s years but to the eras of humankind. Read this way, the lines suggest that only in the first age, the youth of a civilization, is it at its best; what follows is only a decline. It is here that one gets a sense of Herrick’s lament for his own times and what he thinks has been lost.