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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick

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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time Themes

The main themes in To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time are carpe diem and the transient nature of beauty.

  • Carpe diem: The speaker urges the virgins to make the most of their youth while they still can.
  • The transient nature of beauty: Physical beauty is not everlasting and will eventually fade.

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Carpe Diem

The Latin phrase “carpe diem” means “seize the day.” The “carpe diem” philosophy holds that one’s time on earth is shorter than one thinks and therefore must be held on to for as long as possible; those who subscribe to such a philosophy tend to value the present more than the unchangeable past or uncertain future. This attitude toward “living deep” and “sucking the marrow out of life” (as Henry David Thoreau phrased it) is a favorite theme of Herrick’s and, indeed, of many seventeenth- century poets. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” epitomizes the “carpe diem” philosophy by urging its readers—specifically, the young and naive “virgins” of the title—to make the most of the present before their youths have passed. The opening line, “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,” uses the symbol of the rosebuds to command the virgins to symbolically “seize” all the romantic experience they can because “Old time is still a-flying.” “Still” in this context means “always,” and the speaker stresses the fact that (as the saying goes) “time flies” forever. The present brings flowers that “smile” with the joy of their own beauty as well as the “glorious lamp of Heaven, the Sun,” but, like everything else, these too will fade as time progresses. In a short span of time—indeed, in a span that seems as short as a single day—the flowers will “be dying” and the sun’s “race” will be “run.” As Feste, the clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, sings, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”

The speaker argues that, of all the “ages” or stages through which a human life passes, the one in which the virgins find themselves now is the “best.” According to him, their “youth and blood are warmer”: their enthusiasm and emotions are at their highest point, and should be exploited in the search for love. Once their finite amount of youthfulness is “spent,” their lives will only become “worse” until they reach old age, described here as the “worst” part of human life. However, if the virgins do remain “coy” and flirtatious without any intention of committing themselves to husbands, the speaker argues that they will eventually reach a stage at which their only option is to “forever tarry” as old maids, regretful of the time they had wasted that they can never retrieve. To the speaker, adopting the “carpe diem” philosophy is the virgins’only option.

The Transient Nature of Beauty

Age is commonly regarded as a bringer of wisdom, a notion with which Herrick would most likely agree. What one gains in wisdom, however, is countered by what one loses in terms of physical attractiveness. Whereas such an emphasis on one’s physical self may seem shallow to some readers, the speaker of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” emphasizes the idea that physical beauty, like youth, is a commodity that lasts for a short period before fading and never returning. The virgins are advised to gather rosebuds because the rose is an immediately recognizable symbol of beauty; had the speaker urged his readers to “Gather ye orchids while ye may,” his intention would be less apparent. In the same vein, the speaker describes the sun as the “glorious lamp of heaven”—a thing of divine beauty—only then to remark that “neerer he’s to setting.” Although a contrary reader may argue that more rosebuds will bloom and the sun will rise again, Herrick’s point is that physical beauty is like a single rosebud and a single day, gone forever once its time has passed. Whereas other rosebuds will bloom and other days will dawn, physical beauty is not everlasting. The virgins themselves are the ones actually “dying” here.

The poem ends with a reiteration of the importance of physical beauty for those coy virgins who have yet to marry. When they have “lost but once” their “prime,” they “may forever tarry.” Any individual’s physical “prime” exists for a set number of days; the phrase “lost but once” implies that once this prime has passed, it is forever gone. At that point, the stubborn virgins may “forever tarry” (as they are now) because they will have lost their physical beauty and with it their desirability to men. Thus, the speaker, through his offer of an ironic possibility, attempts to frighten the virgins into considering the ephemeral nature of the beauty, which they presumably (and wrongfully) regard as fixed and eternal.

Themes and Meanings

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The reading that has been given the poem thus far can be summed up by the Latin phrase carpe diem, which means “seize the day.” In this sense, virginity is not literal, but is merely a metaphor for a kind of innocence combined with receptivity that should be exercised as much as possible before it is lost, which with experience it will be.

The sexual theme is obvious but not simple. It can be understood very differently, depending on what one takes to be the sex of the reader. The gathering of rosebuds can be a metaphor for defloration; the rising of the sun, a metaphor for male erection, and “spend,” a term for ejaculation. This reading is not merely sensual; it is also sexually threatening. Defloration is rape—that is, taking the flower of virginity from an unwilling victim. The reference to the personified sun is a reference to Apollo, famous for his attempts at ravishment. In a certain sense, then, the phrase “To the Virgins” could be understood to be a call to attack, such as Henry the Fifth’s cry of “into the breach!” in William Shakespeare’s Henry V (1600). In this sense, the “ye” addressed would be male, and the loss with which the poem is concerned is that of male potency: Women will be old before pleasure can be taken of them, the “sun” will set too soon, the energy of youth will pass, and sexual drive with it. As “Old Time” also appears personified, it is important to remember that Chronos, the god of time, seized power by castrating his rival.

If, on the other hand, one reads the poem as addressed to female virgins, then to gather rosebuds, in a sense, is to retain the flower of virginity, to gather it to oneself. The twin of the sun god, Apollo, is the moon goddess, Artemis, who is also the goddess of virginity (Ben Jonson calls her “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair” in “Hymn to Diana” from Cynthia’s Revels, 1600-1601). With the setting of the force of male dominance, the twin force of female celibacy rises. In this sense, it is virginity, one of the few forms of currency a woman had, that is to be hoarded, not lost or “spent.”

When marriage is promoted in the fourth stanza, Herrick is not making a moral distinction between fornication and sex within the sanctity of wedlock. Instead, marriage is proposed as an alternative to both sexual violence and sexual withholding, both of which are asocial and nonproductive. The injunction to “go marry” instead of to “tarry” in this sense has to do with not getting caught up in a vicious circle of mutually exclusive possibilities, but to move and grow into something that is beyond either of them.

Thus the poem is expressing a concern about the state of society. This concern also surfaces in the third stanza if one reads “age” and “times” to refer not to an individual’s years but to the eras of humankind. Read this way, the lines suggest that only in the first age, the youth of a civilization, is it at its best; what follows is only a decline. It is here that one gets a sense of Herrick’s lament for his own times and what he thinks has been lost.

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