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Guess what? You already know this poem. Seriously. Ever heard the line "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may"? Nope, it's not Shakespeare; it's the first line of Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."
Herrick was probably inspired to write "To the Virgins" by a line from a Latin poet named Ausonius (c. 310–395), who penned the following line: "Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes, / et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum." Hmm. In English? OK, here we go: "Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that your life-time hastes away." Sounds familiar, right? Well, people weren't as picky about plagiarism back in 17th century as they are today.
We're not entirely sure when Herrick wrote "To the Virgins, " but he published it in 1648 in a collection of poems called Hesperides. Many of the poems in the volume take beauty, love, eroticism, and various spiritual matters as their subject. "To the Virgins" is no exception. The poem is about making the most of one's time on earth – a favorite theme of Herrick's that shows up in several other poems, most notably "To Daffodils, " "To Blossoms, " and "Corinna Going a-Maying."
Even though "To the Virgins" encourages the virgins – and by implication us, its readers – to take advantage of the opportunities they have, we shouldn't take this as an encouragement to go totally crazy. By the end of the poem it becomes clear that the speaker wants the virgins to get married while they're still eligible, attractive, capable of bearing children, etc. – that's what he means by "gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
It turns out, in other words, that the poem is about participating in what was – in the 17th century and even now, for a lot of people – an important religious ceremony and sacrament (marriage). Anything that might seem too wild and crazy is reigned in at the end of the poem by an overriding spirituality, a promotion of marriage, and a suggested equivalence between it and being "merry."
Let's suppose you have a huge crush on someone. Every day in class, you stare at him or her. After about three months of hearing you talk about this person, your best friend finally tells you to either shut up or make a move. You express some doubts (he or she is out of your league, or doesn't like nerds, or whatever), and your friend says "look, you only live once, so carpe diem."
carpe diem? What does that mean? You look it up and discover that it's a Latin expression meaning "seize the day." It comes from a poem (Odes 1.11) by the famous Roman poet Horace (65 BC-8 BC). It basically means live life while you can. None of us know how much time we have on earth, so we might as well take our chances, right? What's the worst that could happen? That girl or guy could turn you down – so what?
This, essentially, is the point of "To the Virgins." The "rosebuds" of the first line ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may") are the equivalent of your dating opportunities. Just like flowers, they won't be around forever, so you should probably take advantage of them while you can. The speaker tells the virgins that they should "gather" their "rosebuds" – get married – before they get too old.