illustration of a large hourglass full of roses with a clock in the top half

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick

Start Free Trial

How does symbolism in "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" enhance the poem's meaning?

Quick answer:

The author uses a series of comparisons to describe in vivid detail the passing of time. These comparisons include those between flowers and humans, the sun and life, and other symbols that help explain how fleeting time is. He encourages his audience to enjoy each day as it comes because we cannot get back what has already passed by us. In this poem, "To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time", Herrick compares time to a bird flying away. We have to make the most of our time because it will never come back again. In lines 1-3 he says: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying:

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick , the poet emphasizes the transient nature of time and the necessity of making the most of the time that is given to us. The author particularly speaks to maidens who have not yet...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

married. He urges them to marry young when they are in the prime of life. Otherwise, they may miss their chances and wait for more in vain.

In a larger sense, Herrick's reference to maidens, or virgins, is one of the main examples of symbolism in the poem. He does not really address the poem to maidens only but to everyone. He urges us all not to be like young women who postpone their marriages. Instead, we are to seize opportunities as they come to us, because "time is still a-flying." In other words, time will not pause and wait for us. We must take full advantage of youth while we have it so that we will not "forever tarry," and in our old age wish we had done things we didn't then have the courage to do.

Herrick also shows the passing of time using the symbols of flowers such as roses and of the sun. He writes that flowers look lovely for a short time and then die, just as we humans are attractive in our youth and then grow old and die.

The sun gives the light of a new day, but the higher it gets and the more light it sheds, the closer it is to setting again, giving way to the darkness of night. We enter the brightness of our lives in our youth, but the older we get, the closer is the inevitable approach of death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Rosebuds are used as a symbol of youth and beauty. They are an apt symbol, because they are both lovely and fleeting, as youth is. If you delay getting out into your garden and clipping your roses, even for a few days, they may well be past their prime. This symbol provides a visual image that reinforces the urgency of the poem's theme of carpe diem or seize the day. Now is all we have got, so we had better seize our pleasures now.

Another symbol that reinforces the carpe diem theme is the sun. This "glorious lamp of heaven" is beautiful and brilliant, but it is personified as running a race that will soon be done. The sun is a symbol of the rapidity with which time passes. Just as the sun sets before we know, so our lives are very quickly over. Once again, this is used to emphasize the argument or point that if we want to do something we need to do it now.

These are very conventional symbols, but their use makes the point of the poem crystal clear.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This poem, made even more modernly famous by the film "Dead Poet's Society," essentially speaks the overarching message:Carpe Diem, or "seize the day."

The most obvious symbol in this poem is the rosebud, and it holds many complimentary meanings.  First, rosebuds represent youth and beauty.  Because they bloom in spring, they represent new life, and because they die within one season, they represent a short life.  Gathering rosebuds "while ye may" suggests that the time frame for seizing an opportunity is short.

But in this poem, with the word "virgins" in the title, rosebuds are clearly also a sexual symbol.  Not only do they represent life, but they represent love and physical sensuality.  Though the deeper meaning here is to seize opportunity while you are young, the speaker is clearly appealing to, and drawing comparisons to, the power of sexuality and sexual urge in young people.  The fact is, such urges are strongest for a very limited time in the spectrum of life.  The rosebud here presents both an innocent but also a very sexual image.  If the reader were to seize opportunity with the same desire that he seizes sexual pleasure (or could), the message is that he will not be disappointed before he dies.

Approved by eNotes Editorial