Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in Two English Poems

The powerful Latin phrase "carpe diem" is interpreted into English as "to seize the day." When I hear "carpe diem," especially in the context of literature, I imagine a narrative written in order to explain a theory or moral. To seize the day is a powerful expression that applies to us all in a certain aspect in our life. Making the most out of life that we possibly can is a predominant goal to most all of us. However, themes of "carpe diem" were especially predominant in seventeenth century poetry when literature began shifting away from humanism, and therefor plunged into the lives and feelings of the everyday commoner. In a thorough analysis, one can clearly justify that the two poems, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," by Robert Herrick and "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell are works from that period which deliver a clear theme of "carpe diem."

Robert Herrick's, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is popular poem in British literature; however, it is a poem about a universal moral to me. The classic first two lines read, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying." (Herrick 1-2). We all know the beauty of a rosebud, and we all know how quickly they wither and die. In my opinion, Herrick wrote these opening lines of imagery in order make it clear he is concentrating on those in the prime of their life. The following lines are, "And this same flower that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying." (3-4). Again, the youth is compared to the flower. However, Herrick has begun to focus in on the idea of death. Obviously, the author wanted to make prevalent his intentions and theme early on in the poem. The next four lines speak of the swift rise and fall of the sun in its daily course. I think Herrick is using this image in order for his readers to really grasp the concept of just how quickly life can pass you by. Everyone who has lived a day can understand the explanation of how fast one's day can go by. Therefore, he has used a common image from which all of his readers can comprehend, and draw the obvious conclusion that our youth is like the sun. Our youth may come and go as quickly as the sun will rise and fall. The next few lines are extremely blunt, "The age is best which is the first, / When youth and blood are warmer:" (9-10). The words here speak for themselves. I think Herrick is telling us that our youth is the best part of our life when we are full of energy. The last four lines of the poem read as follows:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lose but once your prime,
You may forever tarry. (13-16)
In my opinion, Herrick uses these last four lines as a brief summary of the entire poem: don't waste your time. Take the time and youth you are given and create happiness and joy in your life. However, be wise because once it is all gone, it is lost and gone forever. I also believe that Herrick's last four words are extremely personal, as if he has spent his own life in regret, forever tarrying about his lost youth. Clearly, one can derive several different conclusions about this poem; however, the predominant theme, as I have discussed, is a certainty Herrick presents to us to make the most of our youth and life: to seize the day.

The second poem that this essay discusses is Andrew Marvell's " To His Coy Mistress." The poem is narrated by a young man heated with passion who is speaking to his mistress. In reading this poem I became convinced that the speaker was Marvell himself because he wrote it with such emotion and grace. The poem begins, "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime." (Marvell 1-2). The beginning of this poem instantly sets its reader off with a sense of urgency. The opening lines immediately draw you into a story of something that must happen right now with the idea that there is no time to waste.

The following lines are mainly about how deep his love runs and the lengths to which he would go for his lady. He speaks of how he would take the time it took to build empires in order to praise every part of her body. Next, the speaker alarms his reader with that same sense of urgency felt in the first two lines. In lines 21 and 22, he says,"But at my back, I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near." (21-22). I think Marvell delivers this second burst of urgency at this particular part of the poem in order to secure in our thoughts with his importance of time. Time is a part of our lives that we never have enough of: it constantly speeds us up or slows us down, yet most importantly, it is extremely relevant in all of our lives. The next several lines bring the reader to reality with the poem as Marvell introduces death for the first time in the poem:

And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace. (31-34)
Here, I think Marvell is explaining that all of their emotions are important now, while they are still alive. I believe is trying to deliver the message that they must make something of their time and love while they are still alive to do it.

In the following stanza, the speaker begins his plan against time, as if it were his enemy. He says,"And now, like amorous birds of prey, Rather at once our time devour Than languish in his slow-chapped power." The footnote from the poem refers to "him" as time. I think that the speaker is referring to "him" as time in a negative sense because he feels as though time is a negative force against him. The next four lines refer to the speaker and his mistress pulling together to fight time as he says, "Let us roll our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball / . . . / Through the iron gates of life:" (41-44). At this point in the poem the speaker has almost declared war on time in an effort to gather their strengths together in order to fight it. The last lines of the poem read, "Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run." (45-46). Obviously the speaker is determined to fight time with such strength and speed that even the sun will have to catch up to their love. Generally, this poem is a love story; however, it holds all of the characteristics of the theme "carpe diem." This theme is particularly evident at the end of the story when it sounds as though the speaker will practically go to war over seizing the day in order to have time with his mistress.

The two poems are comparable in several ways, especially in their themes of "carpe diem." Both poems go into great depth over the struggle of time. They both highlight how one must not only fight for the time they have, but also touch up on how time is so easily lost. For example, in "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" the speaker says to us "Old time is still a-flying" (2) and "Then be not coy, but use your time," (13). In "To His Coy Mistress" the poem opens with the lines, "Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime." (1-2). Both poems make a conceited effort to convince the reader that time is precious, and therefor, not something to be wasted. They both deliver a straightforward message to the reader to make the most out of time because it is irreplaceable. Both poems also use imagery through the sun. I commend both poets on doing so also because the rise and fall of the sun is how we measure time; therefore, anyone who reads the poems already have an idea they can relate to. In "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" Herrick writes about the sun being as quick to rise as it is to set, and in "to His Coy Mistress" Marvell writes about how we cannot make the sun stand still; however, we can make it chase us. Both poems use the same basic ideas to deliver the same basic message: to seize the day. Although they narrate in a different tone and style, both bring us to a reality of not taking time for granted.

Although the poems are very comparable, they also differentiate in many ways. For one, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is a narrative poem spoken to a general audience of young people from an elder's perspective. On the contrary, " To His Coy Mistress" is a poem written from one lover to another. Also, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is a poem that leaves its readers with a feeling of seizing the day for themselves. On the contrary, " To His Coy Mistress" is a poem that leaves its readers with a sense of seizing the day, but more so for the characters it deals with. Specifically dealing in the context of the poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" speaks of the race for time against the sun in conjunction to the sun's own personal race. However, in "To His Coy Mistress," Marvell delivers to us a race of the lovers against the rise and fall of the sun themselves.

I believe that the poems were written in order to not only tell the youth of the world and lovers filled with passion about the importance of seizing the day, but also to communicate to those reading the poems about the importance of not taking life for granted. It is clear to see the emotion and feelings put into the poems. I believe that the authors wrote the poems with deep regret of actions that they did not take during their own lives; and therefor finding themselves committed to explaining why seizing the day is so important. From my studying these poems with great depth and detail, I have learned personally why it is important to enjoy my youth without any feelings of regret.