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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick

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Student Question

How is the sun used in "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" and "To his Coy Mistress"?

Expert Answers

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In the poem's final stanza, Marvell compares them both to "am'rousbirds of prey" making love in the sky. He creates the image of them balled up together and soaring through the air: "Let us roll all our strength, and all Our sweetness, up into one ball; And tear our pleasures with rough strife Thorough the iron gates of life." He then adds: "Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run." He is saying that they cannot stop the sun from rising and death from drawing near, so instead they should make the most of time, and make time feel it needs to keep up with them. His use of the sun and the birds combined also adds a natural element to his argument. Just as the birds have sex under the sun, so should he and his mistress. It's only natural. Herrick also uses the sun to convince the virgins to marry, but he uses it differently. He actually is indirectly comparing the women to the sun: "The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, The higher he's a-getting, The sooner will his race be run, And nearer he's to setting." He is using metaphor to tell them they are like the sun and the older they get, they are basically losing their game (their beauty, their power), and soon they will be near death, or too old to marry. This is a perfect comparison for him because the sun is beautiful and bright, like young women. It is also the ultimate clock, since it rises and sets each day. A single day is a relatively short measure of time, which is another reason this is a good comparison for the women. It creates more of a sense of urgency (the time of your youth will come and go in what feels like only a day's time.)
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In both Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time," and Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," there is a sense of urgency. Certainly, the theme of carpe diem is in Herrick's verse as he utilizes the sun and its measure of a day as a metaphor for the swift passage of time,

The sooner will his race be run,

And nearer he's to setting.

Thus, the lover's must make use of their time as the shadows of its setting approach them.

Likewise in Marvell's poem, the theme of carpe diem also dominates.  For, it is this urgency of time that forms the syllogistic argument of this verse. Whereas the sun has been the metaphor for the swift passage of time in Herrick's poem, the final image of the sun standing still is most likely an allusion to Zeus's lengthening by twenty-four hours his night with the lovely Alcmene in the delightful task of engendering Hercules--an image that, nevertheless, the lover is unable to recreate.  And, because the speaker of the poem is unable to recreate this extension of time, he and his lover must make the sun "run" from them by capturing as much love as they can in the time that they have before the sun sets,

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Even though Herrick and Marvell take different approaches toward the sun as a timekeeper,  both their poems stress the need to enjoy love while there is yet time.

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