Thursday, February 24, 2011

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick

In memoriam, L.K. Madigan. Gone too soon.

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.


Discussion

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.

I realize that this poem might strike some folks as odd as a memorial. Certainly no disrespect is intended on my part. Rather, in light of Lisa's death, I find myself thinking about how important it is to seize the day and to enjoy what we have while we have it. It's a good day to dare to eat a peach, I think.


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