Monday, April 06, 2009

To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick

Yesterday's poem for National Poetry Month was Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare, which begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Today's pick was inspired by the third line of Shakespeare's sonnet "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May", beginning with a reference to both buds and May in its first line.

To the Virgins, to make much of Time.
by Robert Herrick

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.

First, a word about the form of the poem. It's written in cross-rhymed quatrains (four-line stanzas in which the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth). It is written in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet) and iambic trimeter (three iambic feet), meaning that lines 1 & 3 have four iambs (eight syllables), and lines 2 & 3 have three iambs (ordinarily six syllables, but Herrick uses feminine endings to all of his even-numbered lines in this poem, so they each have 7 syllables, the final two of which are to be read aloud on the same beat). If you can't figure out what I just said and it bugs you, let me know; otherwise I'll assume that you got it or don't really care, and we'll move on.

This poem is one often quoted in favor of seizing the day, and is formally considered a carpe diem poem. It's likely you've heard the first line, even if you've never seen the whole poem. It is from a book or his work entitled Hesperides; or, the Works Both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick. (Someone thought a bit highly of himself, I'd say.) Herrick was both a clergyman and a poet, and lived in the 17th century. (A royalist, he ran into some difficulties when Cromwell turned up, but that was smoothed out after King Charles I assumed the crown. His poems were not wildly popular during his lifetime, but became quite well-known during the Victorian era nearly 200 years later. His poems were strongly influenced by the works of Ben Jonson.

I should note that although he was a clergyman, Herrick's poems are known for their use of sexual imagery, and that this poem includes what is likely an extended metaphor/double entendre, beginning with the first stanza. Ostensibly a command to young women to go out and pick flowers before they die, the poem also serves as a command to young men to go out and pluck women's, er, flowers as well, and the phrase "to die" in that time period meant not only a literal death of the body but also indicated orgasm. Those of you thus inclined can, I am certain complete the extension of that particular metaphor throughout the poem without further aid.

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1 comment:

William said...

I follow your thought, yet can't help to be aroused in your description. Silly me, ... carry on. Bravo.