“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.
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...
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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.
Dylan Thomas wrote in such a fiercely personal style about such narrowly personal themes that there is hardly any relationship at all to be found between his poetry and the times in which he lived. Critic Jacob Korg noted in a 1965 study of Thomas’s work that “he was occupied with introspections that lie outside of time and place ... his style owes comparatively little to tradition or example.” Thomas grew up in a middle-class family, in a seaside town in the south of Wales; his father was the senior English master in the local grammar school; he lived in London during the Second World War; he was a chronic alcoholic, who stole from his friends and lied to them, was loud and offensive in public, and died of poisoning from drinking too much too fast one day. These facts of his life are well known and often repeated, but they can only be found in his poetry—if one looks for them—with a loose imagination.
Welsh Tradition: Like the traditional poetry of Wales, Thomas’s work displays two tendencies that might seem to the casual reader to contradict each other: an intuitive, mystical religious sense and a strong controlling hand. Wales, along England’s western border, has a traditional poetic form known as the eisteddfod, which was used by druidic cults and in religious worship of nature. It has a strong structure and, like any prose written primarily for recitation and not reading, has a strong, elaborate meter. These facets are not directly noticeable in Thomas’s work, but a reader can find in his work a deep strain of very personal religious beliefs, often attributing mystic powers to natural objects; also, Thomas frequently wrote in regular rhythm and meter and often employed recognized forms, as evinced by the use of the villanelle in “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”
World War II: In the years immediately following Great Britain’s entry into the World War in 1939, Germany bombed strategic points of England, particularly London, on a regular basis. Wales was under constant watch from a naval invasion from Germany or its allies. During those years, Thomas lived in several places around Wales, mostly settling around the quiet fishing village of Laughame, and in 1941, when he landed a job writing scripts and reciting poetry on the British Broadcasting Company’s Program 3, he and his wife moved to London. When the United States entered the war in 1941, German resources were diverted somewhat, but infrequent air raids continued until the end of the war in 1945. Living through the dangers of war helped define the sensibilities of a whole generation of poets, who recognized the wastefulness of mass destruction and saw the shame of demolishing sites across Europe that had stood for centuries. Still other British poets acknowledged how the war reduced the United Kingdom to a second-class power, and the pity and frustration is reflected in their poetry. It only very rarely shows itself in Thomas’s work.
“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 single sentence. The poem employs end rhymes, the rhyming pattern being abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh.
In this poem, Herrick favors the trochaic foot, a unit of two syllables in which the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. Scanning the first line of the poem, written in tetrameter form, reveals the dominance of this unit:
Ga ther / ye rose / buds while / ye may.
Trochaic feet are often difficult to use in a long poem as they tend to create a rocking rhythm. They are appropriate in this short poem with its short line length, where the brevity of form echoes the speaker’s awareness of the brevity of life that underlies the poem’s theme.
1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes against the manufacturers they worked for, including Westinghouse, General Motors, the meat packers, and the railroads.
1981: 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by President Ronald Reagan, marking the start of a new era of pro-employer “union-busting.”
Today: Labor unions have the lowest membership since the 1940s and, in many cases, have little effect on wages and benefits being offered.
1947: The first casino was built in Las Vegas, Nevada—the only state to allow legalized gambling.
1978: Atlantic City, New Jersey, legalized casino gambling in order to bring in tax revenues.
Today: Most states have some form of legalized casino gambling
“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is one of the selections in A Treasury of Great Poetry, an audiocassette compilation released by Listening Library in 1986. The collection also features three other works by Herrick.
Sources Arms, George, “‘To the Virgins,’” in Explicator Cyclopedia, Vol. 2, Quadrangle Books, 1968, pp. 158–59.
Herrick, Robert, The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, Oxford University Press, 1956.
Rollin, Roger, “Robert Herrick,” in Twayne’s English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
———, Robert Herrick, Twayne Publishing, 1992.
Swardson, H. R., “Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth,” in Poetry and the Fountain of Light: Observations on the Conflict between Christian and Classical Traditions in Seventeenth- Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 40–63.
Wentersdorf, Karl P., “Herrick’s Floral Imagery,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. XXXVI, 1964, pp. 69–81.
Witherspoon, Alexander, and Frank Warnke, Seventeenth- Century Prose and Poetry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
For Further Study Cannon, John, and Ralph Griffiths, The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy, Oxford University Press, 1988. This comprehensive overview devotes approximately fifty pages to Charles I, the Civil War, and the Restoration.
Fowler, Alastair, Robert Herrick, Oxford University Press, 1980. This lecture delivered to the British Academy examines the overall design of Hesperides, Herrick’s volume of verse, as well as Herrick’s use of the erotic and the natural in his work.
MacLeod, Malcolm, A Concordance to the Poems of Robert Herrick, Oxford University Press, 1936. This book allows readers to locate every use of every word found in Herrick’s poetry; for example, a reader could look up the word “rosebuds” and find the eight lines in Herrick’s poems where the word occurs. This is a useful tool for examining the ways that Herrick uses various words and symbols throughout his work.
Press, John, Robert Herrick, Longman Group Ltd., 1971. This short study of Herrick’s reputation argues that while Herrick is perhaps not one of the language’s major poets, his verse still “speaks for the normal sensual man.”
Scott, George Walton, Robert Herrick, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1974. This is a short biography of Herrick based on what little is known about his personal life. It also features extended analyses of Herrick’s work in a very readable style.
Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds., The English Civil Wars in the Literary Imagination, University of Missouri Press, 1999. This collection of essays explores the ways in which different poets responded to the Puritan Revolution in their work. Though “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is not specifically addressed, there is an essay on Hesperides, Herrick’s collection of poems, as well as essays on Herrick’s contemporaries.