|Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,|
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
I suspect the above is familiar to most readers, even though it was written mid-seventeenth century and so much from that period would seem totally closed to us, or at least, unfamiliar. It’s from a poem called, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by the Cavalier poet and clergyman Robert Herrick. It was a big hit at the time and it seems to have stood the test of time.
“Gather ye rosebuds,” gets said a lot, mostly in jest I think, but don’t we believe it? Old time indeed is flying and we see those flowers dying all around us. When I was young I think this scared me. Now the message troubles me in a different way. Maybe in a way that could be usefully challenging.
Well, Herrick goes on thus:
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.
Not only is life short, but you can compare it to the space of a single day. The sun comes up and brightly shines. Better enjoy it, because the more brightly it shines, the nearer it is to going out. Then he really lays it on the line:
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.
Got that? From about age seventeen – or whatever it was the seventeenth century thought of as youth – it’s all downhill, and not in a good way either (no brakes!). That we, meaning people in general are in general in agreement with this, can be seen by looking at the
array of supposedly humorous birthday cards in any average retail display, be it Hallmark’s or Barnes & Noble’s. Getting old? Man, it’s terrifying. Lets have a laugh.
Here comes the clincher:
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.
So there it is. Does it add anything to all this to know that Herrick himself never married? I think there’s a way in which this poem is like one of those ha-ha birthday cards. There’s some humor in that callous warning to the virgins that they’d better grab what they can or they’ll wind up hanging around – gasp – unwanted. And somehow, I have never supposed the virgins being addressed were male. Well, that’s a different topic…
Of course this poem has been read by many – perhaps even your own high school English teacher – as a witty evocation of something all we know, or have at least heard repeated in many ways. Time waits for no one; don’t waste it and so on. Those poor virgins are just standing in for all of us who think we can put off stuff and then get back to it later.
The awful thing is that sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it isn’t. Of course we know that too. Hence such awful nonsense as calling old age “the golden years” and sentimental denial of that ilk. Life is hard, yes. Aging is hard. So is youth. It’s all hard. That’s the thing. And the rosebuds tend to have thorns too. Isn’t it amazing the way we keep on wanting to pick them, no matter what age, no matter what they stand for, no matter how often we’ve watched them fade?
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