“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.