To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

This is the fourth and last poem in a series of poems on Sweettenorbull that use flower imagery and deal with the theme of mortality. It is another by cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, and is, on balance, my favourite of the four – the most musical, the most generous and most human poem. The poet is not trying to get anyone to bed here, but is addressing the young, encouraging them to make the most of their lives and enjoy their youth while they can. Many of you will recognise the poem from the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. If not, then I strongly suggest you go and watch it. But do read the poem first:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rose-buds 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.

Granted, there’s not much comfort for the older here – the facts of life are ruthless: you really are young only once, and only get the one chance to make the best of your life (older readers of the blog can take heart from the fact that old age was sooner in coming and not as ameliorated by medicine as today!) This is part of the warm-hearted charm of the poem though: Herrick is not a young man extolling the virtues, in the old sense of the word, of youth; rather, he takes the role of an older figure who wants the younger generation to make the most of their lives. As does Robin Williams’ John Keating in this wonderful scene from the film.

It was conspicuous by its absence, by the way, from the collection of poems ‘Poetry by Heart’ that the UK Department of Education has published to encourage schools to have pupils memorise and recite poems. It’s just the kind of simple, musical poem that is so natural to commit to memory, and so pleasurable to recite. No A.E. Houseman, either. Hardy and Blake have many poems that are easy to remember and worth remembering, but two of their more abstruse poems have been selected here. There are maby good poems there, however, and I understand the inclination to include more than just the obvious. It’s well worth a look – whatever one thinks of the government initiative. Good luck memorising Porphyria’s Lover!

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