To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time Analysis

Robert Herrick

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is a short lyric poem that at first reading seems to be simply a call to young women to enjoy life, particularly its physical pleasures, while they are young.

Robert Herrick is considered one of the circle of poets (sometimes called the “sons of Ben”) that gathered around poet and playwright Ben Jonson in London in the early seventeenth century. Herrick became a country pastor in 1629, but when upon the advent of the English Civil War he remained loyal to his king, he was ousted from his post by the Puritans, who closed the theaters and taverns—and eventually executed the king. This political exile deprived Herrick of his living and cut him off from the possibility of returning to London. It is hard to tell when Herrick poems such as “Delight in Disorder,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” and this one were actually written, but since they were published together in 1648, only a year after Herrick was removed from his post, they may constitute a kind of challenge to Puritan strictures.

The title of the poem begins the address to the virgins. To “make much of time” is both to make something happen while time is passing and to pay attention to its passage. In the first stanza, one use to be made of time is to collect flowers before they are yet in full bloom, because time passes so quickly that soon new flowers will be withered on the vine.

The idea of the passage of time is given a new image as the second stanza describes the movement of the sun. By casting its circuit through the sky in terms of a “race,” the sense of how quickly time passes is emphasized; in the same way that the passing away of the “smile” of the flower is inherent in its bud, the setting of the sun is implicit in its rising. The combination of the idea of gathering in the first stanza and the reference to the sun in the second seems to echo the well-known injunction to “make hay while the sun shines.”

In the third stanza, the idea of the passage of time is cast in human terms: The “first” or young age is “best,” “warmer,” more active. Just as heat is expended by the sun, however, the heat that makes youth warm is also “spent” and diminishes from “best” to “worse” to “worst.” The passage from youth to age in this stanza is parallel to the progression of bud to bloom to death of the flowers in the first.

The shift to human terms in the third stanza anticipates the return in the fourth to direct address to the virgins. They are admonished not to be “coy,” which means “to shrink from familiarity,” in two senses: in modesty or flirtatiousness. So what this request calls for is that the virgins not, in either innocent ignorance or in proud folly, forget how quickly time passes. They are further instructed to marry while they can, with the warning that once they have lost whatever it takes to get a husband, once the time to do so has passed, they may “tarry,” wait, or procrastinate, forever.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The four stanzas of this poem are quatrains (each has four lines). These are “hymn” or “common” stanzas, since they take the form most often found in traditional hymns: a metrical pattern of four iambic feet in the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth lines, and the regular rhyme scheme of abab. It is likely that it was intentional on Herrick’s part to adapt a church form to his very secular theme.

The stanzaic form is given a sense of lushness and superfluity by the hypermetrical syllable at the end of each second and fourth line. The final syllable is not part of the three feet of the line, but seems to pack it with sound; it is also probably not an accident that these syllables have in each case what is called a “feminine” rhyme.

The iambic pentameter is nearly perfect, although the strength of the stressed syllables varies enough for the poem not to be monotonous. Two variations are worth noting. Both syllables of “gather,” the first word of line one and the first foot of the metrical pattern, have nearly the same stress value, which establishes a sense of the imperative from the outset. The fifth line contains two implied elisions: “glorious” metrically must be “glor’ous” and “heaven,” “heav’n.” Leaving extra syllables that require contraction in the line generates the sense that the sun’s passage is both unusually lengthy and unaccountably shortened.

The punctuation of the sentences is consistent with the ends of lines and stanzas throughout most of the poem, which gives it a calm and measured pace. The caesura that occurs with the comma in the middle of the eleventh line causes a break in the poem, increasing the sense of abrupt finality that comes when youth is “spent.” The only enjambment of the poem follows immediately after, in lines 11 and 12, so that the “worse and worst/ times” that come after youth is spent seem to drag on. The later caesuras in lines 13 and 14 are milder and seem to echo only the first, so that within the advice being given, the threat of that break, that expenditure, is repeating itself.

This poem is part of a tradition of persuasion poems. In Englands Helicon, a miscellany of mostly pastoral poems published in 1600, a poem of Christopher Marlowe’s“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” expresses the same kind of plea by begging, “Come live with me and be my love,” and promising all kinds of sensory delights. It is answered by a poem written by Sir Walter Ralegh, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” The nymph recites the changes that will be brought about by the passage of time, and asks whether love will “still breed” after them. A few decades after Herrick’s poem, Andrew Marvell published “To His Coy Mistress” (Miscellaneous Poems, 1681), which even repeats the stock images of flowers and the sun used by Herrick.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Write a poem that explains why youth is better than age, using examples from nature to prove your point. Give your poem a light, buoyant,...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is one of the selections in A Treasury of Great Poetry, an audiocassette compilation...

(The entire section is 36 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Like “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Herrick’s poem “To a Gentlewoman Objecting to His Gray Hairs” (1648) explores the...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Arms, George, “‘To the Virgins,’” in Explicator Cyclopedia, Vol. 2, Quadrangle Books, 1968, pp....

(The entire section is 396 words.)