Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time’- A Stylistic Analysis by Shamah Fatima

Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time’– A Stylistic Analysis by Shamah Fatima

The literary work to be analyzed in this paper is a famous poem by Robert Herrick entitled To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time. The purpose behind choosing this interesting and fabulous poem for the data analysis is its magnificent usefulness in order to understand Herrick’s poetry and Carpe Diem genre.

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.

Levels of Language in Stylistic Analysis

The levels of stylistic analysis are categorized as:

Graphological level: This level deals with the writing system of language, punctuation and paragraphing.

Phonological level: This level deals with the study of sound system. It also discusses the rules of pronunciation, rhyme scheme and utterance of the words in the sentence. Phonological devices include alliteration, consonance, rhyme elements and assonance.

Morphological level: It studies how the words are formed, where are they originated from, what are their grammatical forms, what is the function of prefixes and suffixes in the formation of words, how system of gender, number, plural etc. morphological devices include affixes and coinage.

Lexicon-Syntax level: It is the combination of two words Lexis and Syntax. Lexis means vocabulary which is used in language. Syntax means sentence construction. Lexico-syntactic devices include simile, personification, irony, tone, hyperbole, anastrophe, imagery, allusion, metaphor, natural words, old English words and anaphora.

 

 

 

 

Stylistic Analysis of the Poem

Graphological Level

  • To the Virgins: To Make Much of Time is a classical lyric. It has four well-knit stanzas and each comprises 4 lines.
  • The poet has used normal capitalization at the beginning of each poetic line and only once in the middle of the second line to emphasize the importance of time and to capture it wisely in one’s life:

Old Time is still a-flying (line 2)

  • There is a usual and simple usage of punctuation. It is consistent with the endings of lines and stanzas throughout the poem, which gives it a kind of calm and measured flow. The poet has used following punctuation marks:

 

  1. Comma

Commas are used to make the meaning of the sentence clear, i.e. by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. It adds a certain profundity of thought in the poem. Comma is used eleven times in the poem to provide brief pauses and for separating the thoughts.

 

  1. Caesura

The poet has used a comma in the middle of the eleventh line which is called in poetry a caesura.

“But being spent, the worse, and worst” (line 11).

He used it in order to cause a break in the poem, increasing the sense of abrupt finality that comes when the youth is “spent.” There is an enjambment of the poem in lines 11 and 12. Enjambment means ‘moving over from one line to another without terminating a punctuation mark. Consequently, the “worse and worst/ times” that comes after the youth is spent seems to be dragged on. Caesuras are also used in lines 13 and 14:

“Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry”

 

  1. Colon

The poet has used the colon between independent clauses in a way that the sentence that comes after the colon expands on the first sentence. It is used twice to make clear the meaning of the poem.

“Old Time is still a-flying:”

Here it is used to elaborate on the advice given in the first two lines. He tells the virgins that the flower that is beautiful today will die soon. Again in line 14 he tells the virgins why they should marry. The reason is because once the youth and beauty is gone; they might not get another chance.

“And while ye may, go marry:”

 

  1. Period

The period is used at the end of a complete sentence. Herrick used the period four times at the end of each stanza to show completion of ideas. There are no internal periods.

 

  1. Hyphen

The hyphen is used to create new vocabulary which adds color to the literary text. Herrick used the hyphen two times and each word functions as a verb and one time as a normal noun:

 

Time is still a-flying: (Old English word that functions as a verb.)

To-morrow will be dying. (Old English way of writing the word ‘tomorrow’.)

The higher he’s a-getting, (Old English word that functions as a verb.)

 

 

 

  1. Semi-colon:

The poet used the semi-colon just one time in the poem:

“When youth and blood are warmer;”

This reflects the easiness and simplicity of language that suits the addressing of young ladies.

 

Phonological Level

Sound Devices

  1. Alliteration

It is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of at least two words in the line of poetry. To the Virgins: to Make Much of Time contains simple words, as well as alliteration to suggest both the simplicity and beauty of the theme and also to reinforce the meaning that the poet desires to convey which is simply “go and marry”. Examples of alliteration in the poem are:

 

Line The verse Alliteration
3 And this same flower that smiles today This/ that, same/smiles
6 The higher he’s a-getting, Higher/ he’s
7 The sooner will his race be run,

 

Race/run
9 That age is best which is the first,

 

That/the
10 When youth and blood are warmer;

 

When/warmer
11 But being spent, the worse, and worst

 

But/being  worse/worst
12 Times still succeed the former.

 

Still/succeed
13 Then be not coy, but use your time,

 

Be/but
14 And while ye may, go marry:

 

May/marry

 

  1. Consonance

It is a special type of rhyme that contains words with different vowel sound but the same final consonants. This type of rhyme exists in:

Line The verse Consonance
5 The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

 

heaven, sun
9 That age is best which is the first,

 

best, first
12 Times still succeed the former.

 

Times, former

 

  1. Repetition

It is a literary device that repeats the same words or phrases a few times to make an idea clearer. As a rhetorical device, it could be a word, a phrase or a full sentence or a poetical line repeated to emphasize its significance in the entire text. In Herrick’s poem, one notices that the poet used repetition by using pronouns and verbs and articles as in the following lines for grammatical usage and to reinforce the poet’s idea:

Line 1: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Line 5: The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

Line 9: That age is best which is the first,

Line 11: But being spent, the worse, and worst

  1. Consonant Clusters

It refers to a sequence of two or more consonant. Consonant clusters may occur at the beginning of a word (initial cluster), within a word (medial cluster) or at the end of a word (final cluster). These three types of consonant clusters are frequently used in Herrick’s poem:

 

 

 

 

Initial Medial Final
Still

Flying

Flower

Smiles

Glorious

Blood

Spent

prime

 

Warmer

Succeed

Former

Marry

Tarry

Worse

tomorrow

 

Still

Spent

Rosebuds

 Old

Lamp

Worst

 Lost

Flying

Dying

 getting

 

 

Morphological Level

  1. Affixes

An affix is added to the root of a word to change its meaning. An affix added to the front of a word is known as a prefix. One added to the back is known as a suffix. Sometimes, prefixes are hyphenated.

  1. Suffixes
  • Rosebuds rosebud + s
  • Flying fly + ing
  • Smiles smile + s
  • Dying die + ing
  • Glorious glory+ous
  • Higher high + er
  • Getting get + ing
  • Sooner soon + er
  • Nearer near + er
  • Setting set +ing
  • Warmer warm + er
  • Being be + ing
  • Former form +er
  • Having have + ing

 

  1. Word Formational Process
Word class to which inflection applies Inflectional Category Affix used
Noun Numbers S as in rosebuds
Verb First Person

Third Person

Gather, may, succeed, coy, use, go, marry, run

Smiles, Is, Are, lost

The tense is present simple

 

  1. Word Derivational Process
Word class to which derivational applies Derivational category Affix used
Adjective -er

-ing

past participle

Higher, sooner, nearer, warmer,

dying

spent

Noun -ing being

 

  1. Compounding

To-morrow

Today

Rosebuds

Lexico-Syntactic Level

Semantics

  1. Metaphor

It is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison in which a word or phrase is applied to something which is not literally applicable in order to suggest resemblance. It compares two objects or things without using the words “like” or “as”. In To the Virgins: to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick used many metaphors to decorate his lyric as in the following lines:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

The poet is addressing the virgins who are still young to go and gather their rosebuds while they can. And here the word “rosebuds” implies that the poet is calling the virgins to enjoy their life without limits, but at the end of the poem it becomes clear that “rosebuds” are a metaphor for marriage.

In the second line, the poet addresses the virgins directly and reminds them that:

Old Time is still a-flying

Here the poet means that time is passing and that flowers may die soon. Actually time does not fly, so flight is a metaphor for the passage of time. While the flowers are a metaphor for marriage, they also seem to be a metaphor for human life.

The poet continues to express his message to the young ladies of his age by using another metaphor when he says:

Tomorrow will be dying.

In this line, the poet uses another metaphor about human life. We associate death with old age, and the speaker says that the flowers may die soon. The flowers are a metaphor for human life which can end suddenly with no discernible reason.

In the fifth line, the poet uses a distinguished metaphor again by using romantic poetic words that young ladies like to hear:

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

The poet here calls the sun the “glorious lamp of heaven”. Herrick imagines the sun that lights our world and heaven as a lamp lights up our rooms and houses. Both the sun and the lamp suggest warmth. The poet insists on his ideas when the poet says in the same stanza about the sun:

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

In these lines it is simply detected that the poet says that the sun that lights up our heaven progresses through the sky and this is a direct metaphor for human journey. As it is known the sun itself does not set. So setting here is a metaphor for what appears to happen at the end of the day.

Another metaphor prevails in the following lines:

That age is best which is the first,

When youth and blood are warmer

The poet here calls youth as the best age. People aren’t literally “warmer” when they are younger, so “warmer” is a metaphor for health, vigor, and other things we associate with youth.

Another metaphor takes place when the speaker of the poem says:

But being spent, the worse, and worst

Times still succeed the former

Here the speaker presents the process of aging as a gradual decline, where everything gets progressively worse. Spent here is a metaphor for the loss of one’s youth.

  1. Personification

It is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object is given human attributes. Personification occurs in many forms of literature, especially where figurative language is used. There are many examples of personification in the poem as follows:

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying

The speaker here personifies the flower as a human being who smiles, but in reality, flowers do not smile.

In the following line, the poet describes the sun that it gets ‘higher’ as it progresses from east to west. This is attributing human characteristics to a non- human being:

The higher he’s a-getting

He goes on describing the sun as running a race and this could not be for the sun is not a human being:

The sooner will his race be run

Also he personifies the sun when he says:

And nearer he’s to setting

Actually the sun cannot set; the earth rotates. Setting is a human activity.

  1. Tone

The poem delivers a playful tone, which encourages the reader to live life to its fullest. The poet uses a particular kind of style to elicit a particular kind of responses in the reader. The tone evokes specific feelings in the reader and this is what creates the poem’s mood or atmosphere. In this poem,  lines are short and the language is playful but it is serious enough to evoke feelings of optimism in the reader. The poet gives instructions and advice. He has used language effectively to convey his ideas. The language is direct, he uses ‘ye’ to get his message across.

  1. Anaphora

It is the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive lines:

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

The higher he’s a-getting,

The sooner will his race be run

 

Lexical Level

This level examines the way in which individual words and idioms tend to pattern in different linguistic contexts.

Noun Verb Adjective Adverb
Rosebuds, time, flower, today, tomorrow, lamp, heaven, sun, race, setting, age, youth, blood, being, time, prime

 

Gather, may, is, smiles, will, be, is, will, be, run, tarry, are, succeed, be, use, having, lost, may, tarry, go, marry

 

Old, same, dying, glorious, higher, sooner, nearer, best, first, warmer, spent, worst, worse, former, coy,

 

Still

Once

ever

 

Pronoun Preposition Conjunction Article
Ye, this, that, he, his, your, you
Of, to, for While, and, which, when, but, then.

 

The

 

The poet has borrowed nouns from nature to talk about the beauty of youth. When he addresses the virgins to gather rosebuds while they are young, he is claiming that young ladies like flowers. That’s why he has borrowed such words from nature to convey his message. The nouns are simple. Also the verbs that he used in the poem are imperatives. He used such verbs to learn from his experience as an old man that why he gives them commands when he says: gather, be not coy, use your time, go marry etc. even the adjectives that the poet used are chosen to convey the his ideas in an elaborated way.

Conclusion

          To the virgins: to Make much of Time is one of the greatest works of all time. The theme of the poem is easily conveyed through the richness of images. Robert Herrick has been successful in conveying his message throughout his direct call and wonderful expressions. He has conveyed the message adequately with the help of such excellent imagery, literary devices, and well-designed metaphors.

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