To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
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.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
Tempus Fugit. Time flies. The flower blooms and withers. The sun rises and sets. Youth decays to the grim certainty of death. The basic truths of life never change, no matter our fractious desire for novelty.
One of poetry’s great powers is to remind us of the obvious, while we distract ourselves with the merely sophisticated. In this deceptively simple yet teasing work, Herrick reminds a bevy of virginal maidens (no doubt imaginary) not to fritter away their irreplaceable youth but to make something of it.
It begins with a phrase so ringing, sweet, and essentially wise that it has now passed into the English language as a saying—perhaps the finest tribute that time can confer on any author. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may …” What does this suggest? Is it telling us that we should seize each passing pleasure? Or is it warning us that pleasure is fleeting and thus should be put aside for contemplation?
Set against the virgins’ beauty is the ancient figure of Time. Under his sway, every smiling rose turns sour. But does this refer to a flower or a woman? Perhaps when we see the dying flower, we also see a woman aged and sick, grimacing on her deathbed.
From flower to solar inferno. Even the almighty sun must come down a peg or two. Even as he reaches the top of the sky, he slides down again. Nothing is immune to the effects of time. This might seem rather trite, and lead us to dismiss the poem as no better than greeting card verse, but look again at the pointedly male “glorious lamp,” suffering his humiliating passage of rise and fall. Does it remind you of anything? If so, then return to the image of the flower and ask yourself what it might also evoke …
Throughout, sly innuendo jostles with a sense of life’s somber archetypes. Not even the title can be entirely trusted—its lofty tone hinting at a far more earthy meaning. The concluding line of each stanza also tartly undermines what we have just heard, insistently taking us from the sublime to the ridiculous. Herrick is, by turns, pompous, sad, serious, sardonic, and tongue-in-cheek. He is, of course, a lusty old goat, but he is no rake. We feel his desire and his wistfulness. We feel his concern too.
The third stanza threatens, however, to tip the poem into tragedy. Is it true “That age is best which is the first?” If so, we must forever be lost in bitterness and nostalgia. The general idea seems clear: When the warmth of “youth and blood” is “spent,” life becomes an accumulating succession of darkening moments. But is this inevitable? The word “spent” could easily carry a sexual connotation, one that describes the act as a physical release robbed of all romantic significance. Therefore, an alternative reading could be that it is not so much age as the spillage of sexual promise that leads to misery. Perversely sterile promiscuity is contrasted with the fertility of marriage.
The coyness mentioned in the final stanza is a sign these virgins are already beyond the days of natural naivety. Such coyness denotes the moment when, if held on for too long, innocence becomes a mask in the game of seduction. It belongs not to the green world and the blossoming of love and intimacy, but to the court and the courtesan, where “youth and blood” are “spent” in pursuit of pleasure, but nothing is returned.
A moment of decision has been reached. If it is ignored, the virgins will forever “tarry,” forever playing catch-up as all the eligible suitors disappear over the horizon in search of other delights. Is this a misogynist myth or, in symbolic form, a universal predicament? Surely, all of us must either “use” time or be used by it. We must seize the day but not profane it.
Purity is no weakness but a vital preparation for the fullness of life, a life where sex becomes not an expression of animal lust but of divine creativity—where the flower and the sun triumph over annihilation.
Robert Herrick (1591–1674) was an ordained minister, who lived in Devon, England. He shared his house with an old servant nicknamed Prew, a spaniel called Tracey and, tradition says, a tame pig. His poems contain both erotic and religious themes. He died a bachelor.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.