Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612
Although William Wordsworth is universally acknowledged as the foremost British poet of nature (with Robert Frost serving as his American counterpart), Robert Herrick certainly stands as an earlier poet who employed nature to meet his artistic ends. Worsdworth, of course, became incredibly famous in his own lifetime for poems such as “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1807) and “The World Is Too Much with Us” (1807)—all masterpieces in which the complex relationship between humans and the natural world is explored. Herrick never enjoyed such great success, but his volume Hesperides (1648) teems with poems that, while not at the same level of sophistication as Wordsworth’s, nevertheless invite the reader to consider the ways in which the natural world offers countless metaphors and symbols through which human themes become apparent. Poems such as “To Blossoms,” “To Daffodils,” “Corrina’s Gone a-Maying,” and “Upon a Delaying Lady” stress the thematic connection between the human and natural worlds. Unlike Wordsworth, however, whose issues are as diverse as the colors of leaves in the fall, Herrick almost always returns to a central theme, epitomized by his “All Things Decay and Die”:
All things decay with time: the forest sees
The growth and downfall of her aged trees;
That timber tall, which threescore lusters stood
The proud dictator of the state-like wood,
I mean (the sovereign of all plants) the oak,
Droops, dies, and falls without the cleaver’s stroke.
Although he saw the natural world as a source of beauty, Herrick also knew that even the mightiest members of that world eventually fall prey to an enemy far more ruthless than any “cleaver”: time. Even the greatest temporal power (of, for example, a “proud dictator” or “sovereign”) is weak in the face of the passing years.
Read in this context, Herrick’s best-known poem, “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,” stands as another example of Herrick’s primary artistic concern. Although a modern reader may find the imagery and diction a trifle too quaint and the meter a bit too singsong and cute, Herrick does employ in the poem the technique of “nodding to nature” from which Wordsworth would fashion his career over a century later.
The word “Virgins” here literally refers to young, chaste women who have yet to find husbands; the poem can thus be read as a rallying cry to these delinquent maids, urging them to find suitable mates in the interest of the species as a whole. However, the word “virgin” also carries the connotation of a naive, innocent youth. Both senses are meant here, since, on the surface, the poem urges these girls to marry—but also urges them to recognize the unstoppable force of time. The virgins of the title are uninitiated both sexually and philosophically, and the speaker’s aim is to persuade them to have their bodies and minds “deflowered” before they pass the point where the loss of both literal and figurative virginity will be meaningless: an old virgin cannot bear children, nor can she make up for the time she lost in being coy.
As previously mentioned, Herrick looks to the natural world for a host of symbols that allow him to effectively make his case to his virgin readers. The poem’s opening stanza presents the rosebud as a symbol of experience, specifically, the experience that involves falling in love and losing one’s sexual innocence. Note that the flower is a “bud”: a soon-to-blossom rose that, hopefully like the virgins themselves, will no longer hide its beauty from the world. Herrick’s use of “smiles” (rather than “blooms”) emphasizes the joy that will accompany the virgins’ own blossoming into wives. That “same flower,” however, will be dying “Tomorrow”; the speaker does not literally mean the day after its blossom, but is compressing the life of the flower to a single day to emphasize the short time nature allows all things to live (like the “proud dictator” mentioned above). Time is personified as “Old” yet “flying”—a paradoxical notion since “old” does not suggest the speed associated with “flying.” In comparison to any mortal thing, however, time is, in a sense, both “old” (having existed forever) and “flying” (a person’s youth passes quickly). The rhyming of “flying” (suggesting the quick passage of time) and “dying” (suggesting one’s removal from time) reinforces the idea that time moves swiftly to one clear and unpleasant end.
As the first stanza presents rosebuds as symbols of marital experience, the second offers the sun as a symbol of the unstoppable progress of time. Calling the sun “the glorious lamp of heaven” emphasizes its beauty, yet, like the “flowers” of the first stanza, the beauty here is ephemeral; eventually, the sun will set and leave the world—and the coy virgins—in physical and emotional darkness. As Herrick compresses the life of a rosebud to a day, here he does the same with the span of the virgins’ youth. Of course, nobody’s youth lasts for only a day, but measured against a span of time as long as a human life, youth is certainly ephemeral and short-lived; it seems like a single day in retrospect. By speaking of the “race” that the sun runs every day, Herrick again stresses the “flying” speed of time: “And neerer he’s to setting,” the speaker warns, hoping that the virgins will see the symbolic importance of a common natural phenomenon. The rhyming words “sun” / “run” and “getting” / “setting” emphasize in the reader’s ear this notion that time moves quickly and without any possible impediments.
The third stanza marks a change in the speaker’s approach: while the first half of the poem uses symbols to make his point in a less obvious way, the second shows an increased earnestness on the speaker’s part, which is conveyed in a more direct and even threatening tone. He begins by telling the virgins that they are in the “best” age of their lives, “When youth and blood are warmer.” The idea of “warm-blooded youth” is a commonplace; young people are said to have “warm” blood because of the intensity of their emotions. However, such a remark also suggests that human life is a gradual frost, a dropping of bodily temperature and emotional excitement that ultimately results in death, when a person is, quite literally, physically and emotionally cold. The rhyming of “first” with the eventual “worst” stresses this inevitability. The second half of the stanza suggests that the “age” of youth will be “spent”: everybody has a finite supply of youthfulness that can (and undoubtedly will) be used up. Once such a supply is depleted, all a person can expect are “worse, and worst / Times.” Rosebuds die, the sun sets, blood turns cold; the innocent virgins are no longer being coddled by the speaker, who bluntly informs them that the sands in their biological, marital and emotional hourglasses are spilling faster and faster. Again the rhymes stress the point: one’s “former” age is “warmer” than the one to which she is rapidly moving.
By the poem’s end, the speaker has moved away from his initial use of nature as a means of persuasion to the language of direct command. The lines, “Then be not coy, but use your time / And, while ye may, go marry” gain force from their thirteen monosyllabic words leading up to “marry” and recall the idea that youth exists in a finite supply: like anything else that can spoil with time, youth must be “used” in a very practical sense. The speaker’s commands can all be reduced to short phrases (“be not coy,” “use your time,” “go marry”), emphasizing what he sees as simple, undeniable truths. But this speaker is still not satisfied that he has made his point, so he resorts to sarcasm: “For, having lost but once your prime, / You may forever tarry.” Once you have passed the window of opportunity, when your physical beauty has faded, the speaker argues, You can delay all you like—because no one will want you. “Marry” now or “tarry” later is drummed into the virgins’ ears by way of rhyme. This may irk or offend some readers, who find the implication that physical beauty is crucial to a woman’s finding a husband to be chauvinistic or even barbarous; however, many readers would agree that during one’s youth, physical attraction can often lead to relationships. Beauty may be what initially brings two people together and beauty will indeed fade—but, with any luck, the marriage will not, and if the speaker feels the need to resort to language more direct than that of his opening stanzas, surely he is doing so to make what he sees as an important point.
A lesser-known poem of Herrick’s, “Best to Be Merry,” distills the issues of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” into a very concentrated piece of verse:
Fools are they, who never know
How the times away do go;
But for us, who wisely see
Where the bounds of black death be,
Let’s live merrily, and thus
Gratify the Genius.
The “Fools” here are like the “Virgins” in Herrick’s other poem, unaware of “black death’s” approach. “The times away do go,” and the only possible remedy is to “Gratify the Genius” of the age: find a mate with whom one can gather rosebuds and then tarry—but not alone.
Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Moran is an educator specializing in British and American literature.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1894
One of the most well-remembered and oftquoted lines in all of English poetry, “Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,” opens Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Critics have often described this work as a “carpe diem” poem. Herrick is not alone in his use of this literary motif; in fact, many seventeenth-century English poets embraced the idea of carpe diem, meaning “seize the day” in Latin. Critic Roger Rollin goes as far as to say that this is the poem “that has fixed the concept of carpe diem in the popular imagination forever.” The underlying message in the poem appears to be one of uplift: waste no time; live your life to the fullest each day and embrace the moment.
In addition, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” is highly readable. It rolls off the tongue, so to speak, with regular rhyme and meter, almost in a singsong way. But embedded in the poem are more serious themes—such as death and decay, the fleeting nature of youth, and sexuality—which seem to be contrary to the simplistic nature of the form. What readers have, then, is a poem whose form belies its content, and this is further complicated if readers think about Herrick’s intended audience for the poem.
The seventeenth century was a tumultuous time in England, with a civil war that overthrew the monarchy and then a restoration that placed the monarchy back in power. While not overtly political in his poems, Herrick belonged to a group of poets, known as the “Cavaliers,” who supported the monarchy. Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Carew were also Cavalier poets, and all were deeply influenced by poet and playwright Ben Jonson. Herrick and the Cavaliers were known for writing lyrical love poems.
Where Herrick differs from his contemporaries, however, is in his use of Christianity— blended with traditional Pagan rituals—as an overriding theme in his love poetry, and especially in “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s no coincidence that Herrick served as a parish priest for almost twenty years. His Christian message is not overbearing in the poem, but it is significant that he advises young women to “goe marry,”—a holy sacrament, or Christian ritual. At the same time, he is sensitive to the natural rhythms and rituals of the earth. Specifically he speaks of the “glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun, / The higher he’s a getting.” Here, Herrick is hinting at Pagan tradition and mythology, which involve worshiping the sun. Time itself, which is always spelled with a capital “T” in the poem, is also part of the natural life cycle. Embracing the moment means embracing both Christian and Pagan rituals.
Herrick often brings together two disparate ideas or themes in interesting ways—a literary practice that is peppered throughout seventeenthcentury poetry. “A sharpened awareness of the complex and contradictory nature of experience seems to be the feature which most generally characterizes the seventeenth-century poets,” observe literary critics Alexander Witherspoon and Frank Warnke. In other words, experience is too multidimensional to present in a straightforward, one-dimensional manner; life is full of dilemmas and paradoxes; even the way people think is associative— one thing reminds them of another, or one thing depends upon another. In short, life is becoming more complicated in the seventeenth century, and literature is reflecting the modernization of the world. It makes sense that Herrick would present a poem of contrasts to capture the life/death paradox, and, as suggested earlier, the very form and content contrast with one another. What, then, is Herrick saying in “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and why is it significant that he chooses to say it in the way he does?
Many seventeenth-century poets used “wit” to address the paradoxes of life. Wit, or “the ability to perceive similarities among dissimilar entities or experiences” (Witherspoon and Warnke), is one technique for presenting the contrasts of life. Herrick has his own kind of wit, not so much in that he practices literary ingenuity, weaving seemingly unconnected metaphors together to shock or surprise the reader; rather, his wit comes from his ability to use a lighthearted, conventional, lyric style— one seemingly more suited for love poems—to address the paradoxes of life, and especially, the paradox of womanhood.
Immediately, the reader feels a sense of urgency in the first stanza of the poem. The first word of the poem, “gather,” is not only an action verb; it is a command to the virgins. The speaker directs the women to gather rosebuds, symbolic of beauty, love, and newness. “While ye may,” is a qualifier; it suggests a limit on the gathering of rosebuds both because they may not always be available in plenty for gathering and because the reader may not always have the energy and ability needed for gathering. In the same breath, the speaker provides an explanation for this need to hurry: “Old Time is still a flying.” “Time” takes on a human persona, a kind of Father Time, who is a tangible thing, and is moving forward, literally flying. “Old” and “Still” suggest time’s movement is ancient and constant. Unlike the opportunity for gathering rosebuds— which will soon vanish—time knows no limits; it keeps moving forward as it always has and always will.
The first stanza closes out with another set of contrasts: “And this same flower that smiles today / To morrow will be dying.” Herrick again uses the garden motif, personifying the flower. Though it stands tall and “smiles” or blooms now, death is imminent. Herrick is laying out the cycle of life, with the express purpose to show that death is part of the cycle of life. The flower almost takes on human characteristics, which connect humanity to the cycle of life and death. People are part of nature, and every minute that they live, they are one minute closer to dying.
The second stanza continues with the natural cycle motif, bringing in the sun. Like time, the sun has an ancient quality—it is dependable, and it is the way in which time is measured. “The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun, / The higher he’s a getting; / The sooner will his Race be run, / And neerer he’s to Setting.” As aforementioned, Herrick is pulling in Christian imagery, blending it with imagery from the world of nature. He connects the cycles of the sun to Christianity: the sun is not the lamp of the sky but the lamp of heaven. Herrick scholar Roger Rollin addresses the irony of this stanza: “It begins to appear that irony is a law of nature in the cosmos as in a rose garden; the nearer things are to their apogee, the closer they approach the slide down to their perigee.” This is simply the way the world is ordered—and even the sun, with far more power and, readers are to believe, a kind of “wisdom,” is not immune.
The third stanza further spells out the paradox of youth. “Youth and Blood” are “warmer”; innocence, then, is to be cherished. In using the word “spent” to describe the passing of time, time seems a commodity. Indeed, time is traded for experience; but once it is gone, it can never be regained. “But being spent, the worse, and worst / times, still succeed the former.” Too, readers should remember that this poem is addressed to young women, who find themselves in drastically different conditions than young men of the day. The time when “Youth and Blood are warmer” is the time of beauty and innocence. In the popular imagination, a woman must maintain her beauty and her innocence and virtue to attract a man. But if time slips away, and a woman hasn’t attracted a man, her beauty will fade, and her economic situation may become perilous. Unless she is of a prominent family and class, the seventeenth-century woman has limited opportunities. What does it mean, then, to “seize the day” when your options are limited by gender?
Whether Herrick wanted to debate the politics of gender is in itself a debate. His last stanza can be read in different ways: “Then be not coy, but use your time; / And while ye may, goe marry: / For having lost but once your prime, / You may for ever tarry.” “Coy” in this context means a kind of reservation and modesty, or more appropriately, pretended shyness. Again, readers have the repetition of “while ye may”—first, “while ye may, gather rosebuds,” and in this stanza, “while ye may, go marry.” “Prime” is another way of saying beauty and attraction, and forever “tarry” is rather a euphemistic phrase for spinsterhood.
Instructing women to seize the day by marrying while they are young and beautiful lest they become bitter spinsters seems quite problematic for the twenty-first-century reader. But readers are so far historically removed from the seventeenth century and the subtleties of the final lines of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Roger Rollin has shown a way to read the nuances between the lines: “The delaying tactics that social custom prescribes for them [the virgins] are self-defeating, threatening to waste life’s most precious commodities— time, youth, and love. ‘Goe marry’ can be taken merely as a euphemistic imperative to seek sexual liberation, but given the magisterial posture of the speaker, a literal interpretation is the most likely one: the virgins are encouraged to lose their virginity without delay but to lose it in an act of love that is socially sanctioned.” Herrick was, after all, a parish priest. Whereas other seventeenth-century poets, such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, have no problem directly addressing sexuality outside of marriage, Herrick seems to differ from them on this point.
Herrick’s poem does not completely escape feminist inquiry, though. Even if the reader takes the viewpoint that “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is about sexual liberation and not avoiding spinsterhood, questions still arise. The title, for example, encourages virgins to make much of time; why not to make much of life? Why not pursue dreams, liberate oneself on other fronts? Fight for economic liberation so that one may be more in control of her destiny? Is the best reason for a woman to lose her virginity because time is running out? Is a woman really fully in control of her destiny and body then?
This kind of rereading can provide interesting feminist critiques. But as readers in the twenty-first century, people have to take the poem for what it is and evaluate its message according to the tradition out of which it is written. Not only does the poem have a distinctly Christian feel, it has a Cavalier feel to it as well. Herrick was part of the upper crust of society, a supporter of the monarchy and of traditional values. While conforming to a traditional, lyrical style, he tackles serious themes in this poem, and almost by default, this poem enters into a dialog about sexuality and gender. Three hundred years later, sexuality and gender considerations are still debated in both popular culture and literature.
Source: Judi Ketteler, Critical Essay on “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Ketteler has taught literature and composition.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
Carpe diem, a Latin phrase from Horace’s Odes, translates into “seize the day.” The phrase has become a common literary motif, especially in lyric poetry and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English love poetry. The most famous poems that incorporate this motif include Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Modern writers have also employed the motif, most notably Henry James in The Ambassadors and “The Beast in the Jungle,” and obviously Saul Bellow in Seize the Day.
Typically, the speaker in a poem that uses carpe diem as its theme proposes that since death is inevitable and time is fleeting, the listener, often a reluctant virgin, should take advantage of the sensual pleasures the speaker reveals to her. H. R. Swardson in “Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth,” notes that what makes Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” unique is its combination of Christian and classical traditions in its presentation of the carpe diem theme. The speaker in Herrick’s poem begins on a traditional note, exhorting the listeners to “seize the day” by giving up their virginity; yet he recommends that they accomplish this only after they have married.
Most poems present a classical point of view in their expression of the carpe diem theme, reflecting the pagan spirit in nature as the speakers try to convince their listeners to give themselves up to sensual experience. For example, in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker’s goal is to convince a young woman to join him and become like “amorous birds of prey” and “tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life.”
“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” begins in the same classical tradition. Its structure as well as its initial thematic proposal is traditional. The poem is a lyric composed of sixteen lines arranged into four stanzas. It is written in common, iambic meter with four stressed syllables in the first and third lines, three in the second and fourth.
The speaker in the first three stanzas suggests to his listeners, much like the speaker does in Marvell’s poem, to “use your time” wisely by enjoying sexual love. Yet he also communicates the poignant sadness of the pursuit of pleasures as “old Time is still a-flying.” Herrick uses the image of the rose in the first stanza in two traditional ways: as the symbol of beauty and of the transitory nature of life. Spenser also employs this image in Faerie Queen (II.xii.74–75) when the speaker suggests, “Gather therefore the Rose, whilst yet is prime.”
Like the rosebuds, the virgins to whom the speaker in Herrick’s poem addresses his words have not yet flowered. With this analogy, he suggests that if they give up their virginity, they will blossom into lovely roses. When he notes that the flowers “tomorrow will be dying,” he reinforces his argument to his listeners that they must “make much of time” by experiencing pleasure before the opportunity passes. Whereas the inevitability of death is revealed in an almost gentle image of “old time . . . a flying” in the second line, its harsh reality emerges in the fourth when the speaker insists that the flowers will die soon after their blossoming. These images create an atmosphere of urgency. The speaker employs them to explain why he advises the virgins to gather the rosebuds “while ye may.”
In the second stanza, Herrick reinforces this sense of urgency. The image of time flying in the first is echoed by the personification of the sun in the second as it runs its race in the heavens. The short life of both the flowers and the sun reflects the inevitability of death throughout nature. The sun as “the glorious lamp of heaven” is often used as it is here as a representation of life itself, its path from sunrise to sunset reflecting the stages of human life. As it sets, it seems to be dying, as did the roses, and, eventually, as will the virgins. Thus, the virgins should race against time, like the sun, to enjoy life to the fullest.
Roger B. Rollin, in his article on Herrick for Twayne’s English Authors Series Online, notes that in the third stanza the speaker presents a two-part argument for his listeners. First, the stanza suggests, he explains, that “since human beings are subject to the law of atrophy,” that they, like the roses will eventually decay and die, “youth, when growth is still taking place, has to be the optimum time of life.” The “warmer blood” of youth suggests their heightened ability to feel and express passion, an ability that fades with age. Rollin notes that the second point the speaker makes here is that “the grand illusion of youth . . . is that it is forever, an illusion [he] curtly dispels with his image of adolescent heat soon giving way to the chill of age” and inevitable death. Marvell offers a similar message in “To His Coy Mistress” when his speaker slyly notes, “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.”
Ironically, the new element that Herrick introduces in the last stanza reflects traditional Christian values. Typically in carpe diem poems, the impetus for the speaker’s urging of young women to embrace their sexuality is his own pleasure as well as theirs, or it becomes an end in itself. However, in “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” while the speaker advises his listeners not to be coy and withdraw from sexual experience, he urges them to marry before they lose their virginity. The poem closes with a reinforcement of the speaker’s main points: that since death is inevitable and time is fleeting, and since youth is the most vibrant time of life, the virgins should “seize the day.” He suggests that if they do not grab this opportunity now, they may lose it forever.
Rollins suggests that the speaker proposes in the last stanza that “the delaying tactics that social custom prescribes for [the virgins] are self-defeating, threatening to waste life’s most precious commodities— time, youth, and love.” The charge “Go marry,” Rollins notes, could be interpreted as a “euphemistic imperative to seek sexual liberation.” Yet, he suggests “given the magisterial posture of the speaker” the more likely interpretation is that his purpose is to encourage the virgins “to lose their virginity without delay but to lose it in an act of love that is socially sanctioned.”
Swardson argues that the poem stands out from traditional carpe diem poetry because in it, “some effort is made to assert the claims of one order of experience without denying the certain and recognized value of another order.” He suggests that the “ceremonial quality” of the poem promotes “a ritual elevation, that helps give this experience a value beyond that of immediate pleasure.”
In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Herrick presents a clever fusion of challenge to and support of social and religious doctrines: on the one hand, he defies custom when he encourages youth to openly embrace their sexuality; yet on the other, he upholds the belief that sexual knowledge should not be gained until one is married. Herrick’s intermingling of the classical pagan call to experience fully the sensual pleasures of life with the traditional Christian attitude toward sexuality and marriage has produced a fresh and intriguing spin on the carpe diem poetic convention.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
While it is only Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going AMaying” that can appropriately be compared with Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” it is the older poet’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time” that has fixed the concept of carpe diem in the popular imagination forever. Scholarly investigation has revealed that Herrick is heavily indebted to a variety of sources—some classical, some English—in this poem, but his synthesizing is so artful that the lyric’s derivativeness is hardly noticeable. Not in the least pedantic, this poem has been so popular that its opening line has become proverbial:
1. Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
To morrow will be dying.
The admonition of the title and the image of time in flight convey some sense of urgency. However, even gathered, rosebuds are beautiful, and the personification, “Old Time,” suggests a genial greybeard more than a grim reaper. The fact that this ancient is “a flying” almost makes him seem more comic than ominous. But then the ironically foreshortened image of the flower dying amid its smile manifestly darkens the mood even as it hints at the analogy between maidens and blossoms. That mood is intensified in the second stanza by an image which suggests that transiency is inherent in the cosmos as well as in sublunary nature:
2. The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he’s a getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And neerer he’s to Setting.
The metaphoric first line of the stanza is pretentiously poetic compared to the colloquial character of stanza 1. Herrick’s purpose is to inflate the eminence of the sun so that its decline, taken up in the last two lines, may seem even more swift and precipitous. It begins to appear that irony is a law of nature: in the comos as in a rose garden, the nearer things are to their apogee, the closer they approach the slide down to their perigee.
The object lesson to be drawn for the virgins from such natural phenomena is outlined in argumentative fashion in the two remaining stanzas. First, the girls are presented with a twofold proposition:
3. That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.
Since human beings are subject to the law of atrophy—“All things decay and die”—youth, when growth is still taking place, has to be the optimum time of life. The grand illusion of youth, however, is that it is forever, an illusion the virgins’ lecturer curtly dispels with his image of adolescent heat soon giving way to the chill of age. His conclusion, then, becomes almost self-evident:
4. Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
This last stanza makes it clear enough that to the speaker young women are coy by [custom or choice] rather than by nature. Their receptivity to love is under their control. The delaying tactics that social custom prescribes for them are self–defeating, threatening to waste life’s most precious commodities— time, youth, and love. “Goe marry” can be taken merely as euphemistic imperative to seek sexual liberation, but given the magisterial posture of the speaker a literal interpretation is the more likely one: the virgins are encouraged to lose their virginity without delay but to lose it in an act of love that is socially sanctioned.
Source: Roger Rollin, “Cleanly-Wantonnesse and ‘This Sacred Grove’: Themes of Love,” in Robert Herrick, G. K. Hall, 1999.
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