Corinna's Going A-Maying

by Robert Herrick

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The Poem

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The title of this poem is particularly interesting in that it asserts unequivocably that Corinna will take part in the activities of May morning, although there is no certainty in the text that she will do so. The poem is a dramatic monologue, with the lover-speaker seeking to persuade his sweetheart to get out of bed and join the other youths “to fetch in May.” Her reactions to his entreaties are unrecorded. She remains no more than a name, as the interest of the poem resides in the speaker’s rhetorical strategies to work his will upon her.

The opening words, “Get up! get up for shame!” are jarring, as if he is trying to startle her into wakefulness, but the tone softens with “Get up, sweet slug-a-bed.” The burden of his argument in the first stanza is that it is “sin” and “profanation” to stay indoors when “a thousand virgins on this day/ Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.”

In the second stanza, the lover’s tone changes perceptibly. Harsh urgency gives way to soft flattery, as indicated by the sibilance of the lines. Do not bother with jewels, the lover argues, since nature will make you as sweet as the goddess of flowers herself. Even Titan is standing still as he awaits her entrance into the natural world. The last line of this stanza (“Few beads are best when once we go a-Maying”) shows the lover’s wit and ambiguity. The line is certainly a cavalier allusion to Puritanism as a religion of restraint. It also prepares for the pagan worship of nature in the following stanza.

Like the first two stanzas, the third opens with an imperative, of which there are more than twenty in the poem’s seventy lines. Here the lover tries to pique his sweetheart’s curiosity to see the wonderful transformation of the village into a celebration of the May. This transformation has religious overtones. The ornamenting of the trees with whitethorne is an act of devotion. Each house is as sacred as the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant. The speaker repeats his earlier admonition that to stay indoors on this day would be sinful.

In the next-to-the-last stanza, the speaker refrains entirely from enjoining his sweetheart to do anything. Instead, he simply states that “not a budding boy or girl this day/ But is got up and gone to bring in May,” enumerates in some detail their joyous activities, and concludes, “yet we’re not a-Maying.”

Since cajolery and flattery have apparently not worked, the speaker-lover resorts to fear as a motivator in the final stanza. The tone darkens dramatically as the speaker, echoing the words of Job, warns that “our days run/ As fast away as does the sun.” Life’s brevity is emphasized in powerful images of loss and oblivion. Once lost, time can never be regained. The conclusion is inescapable: “Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.”

Forms and Devices

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“Corinna’s Going A-Maying” consists of five stanzas of fourteen lines. It is written in rhymed couplets, and although there is some enjambment, there is none of the conversational authenticity that is sometimes found in the dramatic monologues of John Donne and Robert Browning. This poem has more the nature of a set speech than of an urgent appeal. Its artificial quality is the result of both the subject matter and the form. May Day celebrations and pagan nature worship are far removed from the reader’s everyday concerns, and the complex metrical scheme that is repeated in each stanza draws attention to itself. In every stanza, lines 1, 2,...

(This entire section contains 508 words.)

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7, 8, 13, and 14 contain ten stresses, while all other lines are shortened to eight. The effect is one of variety, enhanced by the combinations of iambic and spondaic feet, but it is also one of patterned artificiality.

Anticipating English Romanticism by a century and a half, the speaker perceives the natural world as organic. Consequently, the most prevalent figure of speech is personification. In the first stanza alone, four inanimate objects are endowed with human characteristics: “the blooming morn,” “The dew,” “Each flower,” and “the birds.” In the first line, the morn, imaged as Aurora, is said to be presenting Apollo, the god of dawn whose hair is never cut: “the god unshorn.” Aurora, seen as throwing “her fair/ Fresh-quilted colors through the air,” is a complicated figure suggesting both the human and the sublime, a woman impatient to be out of bed throwing off her bedclothes and a goddess showering the world with light. If Aurora is not content to stay in bed, the implication is that Corinna certainly should not be. Metaphor is used subtly to advocate the speaker’s argument. The other personifications have been similarly aroused to greet the day. The birds saying “matins” and singing “their thankful hymns” prepare for the religious dimensions of the May Day celebration in the third stanza. In the second stanza, the light of dawn hanging “on the dew-locks of the night” is replaced by the “endless night” of the final stanza. Therefore, to take advantage of the light while it yet shines becomes a matter of supreme importance.

In addition to personification, the poem is richly endowed with other rhetorical devices, such as metaphor, simile, and allusion. “Spring” (line 14) is used as a verb to indicate youthful energy while also suggesting the season of youth and rebirth. Corinna is admonished to put on her “foliage,” to join every “budding boy or girl” in the celebration, to affirm youth and life while she is “but decaying.” “Rise” (line 15), like “Spring,” is richly connotative. It suggests vitality and energy as opposed to the oblivion of old age and death in the final stanza. Up to the last stanza, all metaphors and similes relate to spring and rebirth. In the last lines, however, the images of nature are abruptly transformed to signify the brevity of life and the finality of death. Life lost is as irretrievable “as a vapor or a drop of rain.”