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Robert Herrick is considered a cavalier poet, one of the followers of Charles I. In fact, coming from a middle class background, he enjoyed the patronage of several noblemen and was thus welcomed into court gatherings. As was common in England since the time of Chaucer, poets circulated their poetry in manuscript form for the amusement of the court. Poems written in honor of a specific nobleman or at the request of a nobleman as a memorial for a special occasion were often rewarded monetarily. Herrick’s poetry not only provided him with needed income from his patrons, it also made him a part of the courtly social and literary circles. After becoming an Anglican clergyman, Herrick served as chaplain to a high-ranking courtier. Soon after, however, King Charles I appointed him vicar of a church in Exeter, far from the social and literary life Herrick loved in London. After the execution of Charles I, Herrick lost his position as vicar under Cromwell’s rule and returned to London where he concentrated on publishing his poems. When Charles II was restored to the throne, Herrick’s job was also restored, and he spent the rest of his life as a vicar in Exeter.
Sundial on the side of a building in Yvoire, Haute-Savoie, France.
aewolf from Denver. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
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.
John William Waterhouse “Gather ye rose-buds, while ye may.”
As is typical of the Cavalier Poets, Herrick expresses the carpe diem, seize the day, philosophy in this poem, the philosophy that life is to be lived for today because tomorrow is uncertain. Unlike Marvell’s seduction poem, this poem specifically encourages young women to marry, not simply to engage in sexual activity for pleasure’s sake.
Herrick’s poem begins with the well-known lines, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying.” These lines embody the carpe diem philosophy: young women should make the most of their youth and loveliness because it won’t last long. Herrick emphasizes the transitory nature of youth and beauty as he compares the young women to flowers which bloom one day and wilt the next (lines 3–4). Noting that youth is the best age (lines 9–10), Herrick in the final stanza again urges the virgins to marry while they are young and desirable.