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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick

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What is the structure and form of the poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"?

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The poem is divided into four stanzas, each with four lines. A stanza with four lines is called a quatrain. The poem is structured so that the first two quatrains describe the problem, and the next two quatrains offer the solution. The problem is that we only have a finite amount of time on this earth. This is established in the first stanza with the reference to "Old Time . . . still a-flying" and is emphasized in the second stanza with the image of the "setting" sun. The solution offered in the second half of the poem is to "use your time . . . while ye may," or, in other words, to make the most of your time while you can. This message places the poem in the carpe diem (Latin for "seize the day") genre of poetry.

As regards the form of the poem, the first three stanzas are written in the third person perspective, but in the fourth, Herrick switches to the second person direct address, encouraging the reader to "use your time" and warning them that otherwise "you may forever tarry." By switching to the second person perspective in the final stanza, Herrick finishes the poem with a greater sense of urgency. The message becomes personal and more immediate.

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Let's start with the easy stuff. The poem is comprised of four quatrains. That means the poem is made of four different stanzas that each have four lines apiece. Rhyme scheme is next. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABAB. This means that lines 1 and 3 rhyme with each other, and lines 2 and 4 rhyme with each other. As for the rhythm and meter, that's not quite so straight forward. Most of the poem is written in the iambic foot. An iambic foot contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. I'll use bold to indicate the stressed syllables.

And this | same flower | that smiles | to-day

The first line of the poem is an example of how all of the lines are not made up of all iambs. The first foot is a trochee, and that means the stressed syllable comes first.

Gath-er | ye rose|-buds while | ye may.

Notice how both of the examples have four rhythmic feet. This is called tetrameter. The odd numbered lines are all iambic tetrameter. The even numbered lines are one syllable short. This is called catalexis and results in the even numbered lines of this poem being catalectic lines of poetry. I'll use line 2 as an example.

Old time| is still | a-fly|-ing

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This poem also belongs to a category of poetry which was renowned in this era called "Carpe Diem," or Sieze the Day poetry. The general message was to hurry up do something--live life to the fullest now because we don't know what will happen tomorrow.

Herrick's message is, "ladies, while you are still young and beautiful, hurry and find a husband. If you wait to long, you will dry up and become ugly and no one will want you."

Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Donne's "The Flea" also belong to the Carpe Diem faction of poetry.

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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.

He also uses the trochaic foot, which is a unit of two syllables with the first syllable stressed, and the second unstressed. The first line should read like this:
ther / ye rose / buds while / ye may.

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