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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
(Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May)
A Poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Publication
Source of Inspiration
Text of the Poem
Themes
Meter
Rhyme
Point of View
Figures of Speech
Biography of Herrick
Study Questions
Writing Topics
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Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings... 2009
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Type of Work

......."To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is a lyric poem that promotes carpe diem, the idea of living life to the fullest~ez_mdash~now. The Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) popularized the term carpe diem in the eleventh poem of his first book of Odes, published in 23 BC. Horace wrote: ~ez_ldquo~Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.~ez_rdquo~ This sentence may be translated as Loosely translated, this sentence says, "Seize the day rather than placing your trust in the future." After Horace died, carpe diem gained widespread currency as a term for categorizing any literary work whose primary purpose was to persuade readers to make the most of the here and now. Thus, Herrick's ~ez_ldquo~To the Virgins~ez_rdquo~ is a lyric poem that falls into the carpe diem genre. It does not urge rash action, but it does urge readers to answer the door when opportunity knocks.

Year of Publication

.......Robert Herrick (1591-1674) published "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" in 1648 in a collection of his poems entitled Hesperides: or, the works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick Esq.

Source of Inspiration

.......Robert Herrick apparently received inspiration for his poem from lines written by Decimus Magnus Ausonius (AD 310-394 or 395), a prominent citizen of imperial Rome who was born in Burdigula, Gaul (present-day Bordeaux, France), where he taught grammar and rhetoric. His teaching skills attracted the attention of Emperor Valentinian, who hired Ausonius to teach his son, Gratian, next in line to the throne. When Gratian became emperor, he appointed Ausonius to various positions and eventually to the consulship in 379. Ausonius wrote poems, eulogies, prayers (he was a Christian), letters, and other works. In one of his works, he wrote, "Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes, / et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum." In volume 2 of Ausonius: With an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn White (Loeb Classical Library), White translated these lines as, "[M]aidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that so your life-time hastes away." (Click here for the complete text and documentation for this volume of Ausonius's writings.) It was these lines that are said to have inspired the theme-setting first line of Herrick's poem, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." The Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) and the English poet Edmund Spenser (1552 or 1553-1599) also echoed these lines in their poetry, the former in Gerusalemme Liberata and the latter in The Faerie Queene.
 

Text of the Poem

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day 
To-morrow 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 for ever tarry. 

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Themes

General Theme

.......Act now to make the most of your life. In other words, says the poem, aggressively pursue a goal rather than sitting idly by waiting for good things to happen. Be proactive. Take a risk. You can't dream your way to your goal. 

Specific Theme

.......You young ladies should pursue opportunities for marriage before time turns you into old maids. 

Meter

.......The meter of the poem varies. Most of the lines, however, are in iambic tetrameter and in iambic trimeter with catalexis (extra syllable at the end of a line). Following are examples of the metric formats.

Iambic Tetrameter
.......1................2................3................4
The SOON..|..er WILL..|..his RACE..|..be RUN,

Iambic Trimeter With Catalexis
.......1................2..............3..........
And NEAR..|..er HE'S..|..to SET..|..ting.

The first line of the poem is a special case. It begins with a trochee, then reverts to iambic feet. 
Tetrameter With a Trochee and Three Iambs
.......1................2.................3..................4
GATH er..|..ye ROSE..|..buds WHILE..|..ye MAY
Rhyme

.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth (abab). Notice that in lines 1 and 3 of each stanza the rhyme involves only the final syllable of each line. However, in lines 2 and 4 of each stanza the rhyme involves the final two syllables of each line. The former type of rhyme is called masculine rhyme; the latter is called feminine rhyme. Here is a presentation of the first stanza with the masculine rhymes highlighted in red and the feminine rhymes highlighted in blue and black. 

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
.......A special type of rhyme, consonance, occurs in line 9: That age is best which is the first. Consonance pairs words with different vowel sounds but the same final consonants. 

Point of View

.......The first line of the poem is in second-person point of view, lines 2-12 are in third-person point of view, and lines 13-16 are in second-person point of view. 

Figures of speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. 

Metaphor
Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than

Comparison of rosebuds to opportunities in general; specifically, comparison of rosebuds to opportunities to win a husband.
Comparison of time to a flying creature (bird, insect, etc.).
Comparison of flower to a maiden.
Comparison of the sun to a lamp.

Personification
Type of metaphor that compares a thing to a person

Comparison of a flower to a human being. (Only humans can smile.)
Comparison of the sun to a human being through the use of the pronouns he and his.

Alliteration
Repetition of a consonant sound

And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying
The higher he's a-getting

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write a poem with a carpe diem theme. 
2. Where does enjambment occur in the poem?
3. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the carpe diem theme of Herrick's poem with that of Arthur Hugh Clough's "Where Lies the Land to Which the Ship Would Go?"
4. Herrick wrote his poem in an age when the top priority for a typical maiden was to marry a man of promise. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the goals of a such young woman with the goals of a modern young woman. 

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