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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” has been recognized as an important poem that pushes beyond the boundary of the typical Cavalry lyric extolling “Carpe diem,” to reflect a unique interpretation of this notion, one that unites two seemingly contradictory belief systems, pagan and Christian. In his book Poetry and the Fountain of Light, H. R. Swardson, discussing another carpe diem poem by Herrick entitled “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” argues that the poem does not offer mirth and the embracing of experience as a complete and utter licence to certain freedoms, as many more typical carpe diem poems do, nor does it suggest a strict and rigid Christian moral code. Rather, it mediates between the two. While avoiding a narrow understanding of Christianity, the poem draws on “the undeniable wisdom in the Christian order of life, including its action within some lawful boundary and recognizing considerations that are entirely foreign to the classical carpe diem statement.” This same observation may be applied to “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” In the end of the poem, the advice proffered is for the virgins to marry. Thus, Herrick is able to articulate the carpe diem attitude, encouraging individuals to “seize the day” with images that suggests passion and sexual vitality, while at the same time he draws this notion into “the Christian fold,” an important consideration for a clergyman living in a society deeply influenced by Christianity.

Critic George Arms, commenting in Explicator Cyclopedia, furthers Swardson’s observations, noting that familiarity with the poem and readers’ twentieth-century perspective obscure the sudden turn the poem takes in the final stanza. The image the poem develops, of virgins seeking pleasurable experiences, does not lead one to expect the pious advice to marry at the end of the poem. This unexpected advice, Arms argues, both shocks and delights the reader. Arms suggests that Herrick, in his choice of terms such as “virgin,” “lamp,” and “heaven,” may be alluding to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins found in Matthew 25:1–13: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins.” If this is so, the distinction between the religious advice offered at the end of the poem and the encouragement to indulge in seemingly pagan revelry is great. Pagan imagery, Karl P. Wentersdorf notes in Studia Neophilologica, marks Herrick’s texts in a significant way. For instance, the rosebud image is linked to Dionysus, the god of wine and vegetation, who also represents fertility and life. This allusion and the classic carpe diem notion suggest a pagan or non-Christian order or belief system. Yet the poem clearly ends with an exhortation to marry. Those who disregard the Christian ethics, which locates passion within marriage, are the foolish virgins who clearly stand outside the Christian order.

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