The phrase “carpe diem” is a powerful Latin phrase, that when translated into English means “seize the day.” Themes of “carpe diem” were predominant in seventeenth century poetry, and this can be seen in the two poems, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” by Robert Herrick and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell.
Robert Herrick’s, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is a popular poem in British literature, that professes a common universal moral. The first two lines read, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying.” Herrick wrote these opening lines of imagery in order make it clear that he is concentrating on those in the prime of their life. The rosebud symbolizes the youthful person, because like a rosebud, a young person has not yet experienced life to its fullest. The following lines are, “And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.” Again, the youth is compared to the flower. However, now Herrick has begun to focus in on the idea of death. This is where the poem starts to reveal the theme. The next four lines speak of the swift rise and fall of the sun in its daily course. Herrick is used this image in order for his readers to really grasp the concept of just how quickly life passes by.
The next few lines are extremely straightforward, “The age is best which is the first, When youth and blood are warmer:” The words here speak for themselves. Herrick is saying that our youth is the best part of our life when we are full of energy. The last four lines of the poem read “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.” Herrick uses these last four lines as a brief summary of the entire poem, he is warning the youth not to waste their 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. This clarifying the predominant theme of making the most of our youth and life, and in other words, to seize the day.
The second poem 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. The poem begins, “Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.” The beginning of this poem immediately 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 the speakers 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.” Marvell delivers this second burst of urgency at this particular part of the poem in order to secure in the readers thoughts the 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. The next several lines bring the reader to reality with the poem as Marvell introduces death for the first time.
“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.” Here, Marvell is explaining that all emotions are important now, while they are still alive. He 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 speaker refers to “him” as time in a negative way, 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, And tear our pleasures with rough strife, Through the iron gates of life:” 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.” 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. The theme of “carpe diem” is clearly apparent, at the end of the poem, when it sounds as though the speaker will practically go to war over seizing the day in order to have time with his mistress.
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. Both poems make an effort to convince the reader that time is precious, and 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, therefore you must sieze the day.
"We are food for worms, lads," announces John Keating, the unorthodox English teacher played by Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. "Believe it or not," he tells his students, "each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die."
The rallying cry of their classroom is carpe diem, popularized as "seize the day," although more literally translated as "pluck the day," referring to the gathering of moments like flowers, suggesting the ephemeral quality of life, as in Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," which begs readers to live life to its full potential, singing of the fleeting nature of life itself:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The Latin phrase carpe diem originated in the "Odes," a long series of poems composed by the Roman poet Horace in 65 B.C.E., in which he writes:
Scale back your long hopes
to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and
is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.
Various permutations of the phrase appear in other ancient works of verse, including the expression "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," which is derived from the Biblical book of Isaiah. At the close of "De rosis nascentibus," a poem attributed to both Ausonius and Virgil, the phrase "collige, virgo, rosas" appears, meaning "gather, girl, the roses." The expression urges the young woman to enjoy life and the freedom of youth before it passes.
Since Horace, poets have regularly adapted the sentiment of carpe diem as a means to several ends, most notably for procuring the affections of a beloved by pointing out the fleeting nature of life, as in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress":
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Other approaches to carpe diem encourage the reader to transcend the mundane, recognize the power of each moment, however brief, and value possibility for as long as possibility exists. In "A Song On the End of the World," the poet Czeslaw Milosz asserts that the world has not yet ended, though "No one believes it is happening now," while Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" famously ends with the directive "You must change your life." Emily Dickinson's poem "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl (443)" boasts that the reward of life is to "hold our Senses," and the French poet Charles Baudelaire offers the advice to "Be Drunk," though not necessarily on alcohol: "Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk."
Not all carpe diem poems instruct, however. The poem "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz offers advice through the poet's first hand experience:
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In a similar manner, many contemporary poems offer reminders about life's overlooked pleasures, such as those found in the warm summer evening of Tony Hoagland's poem "Jet":
We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.
Carpe diem remains an enduring rhetorical device in poetry because it is a sentiment that possesses an elasticity of meaning, suggesting both possibility and futility. Many poets have responded to the sentiment, engaging in poetic dialogues and arguments over its meaning and usefulness. Robert Frost briefly considers the notion of living in the present in a poem appropriately titled "Carpe Diem." He concludes, however, that "The age-long theme is Age's" and ends the poem with his own sentiment, that one should seize tomorrow, not today:
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine.
The existential dilemma suggested by carpe diem includes a sense of helplessness and senselessness, sentiments which are often expressed in a poet's resignation to a life filled with inexplicable losses and hardships. In Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Spring and Fall: To a young child," the poet warns that "as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder." However, Walt Whitman's poem "O Me! O Life!" represents a refusal to acquiesce to such interpretations of existence. Whitman calls the reader to the present moment, and demands something meaningful be attempted:
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Some other examples of carpe diem poems include:
"We live in deeds" by Philip James Bailey
"Are they Shadows that we See" by Samuel Daniel
"Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam" by Ernest Dowson
"The Road Not Taken" (with audio) by Robert Frost
"Three Airs for the Beggar’s Opera, Air XXII" by John Gay
"Catch What You Can" by Jean Garrigue
"O Gather me the Rose" by William Ernest Henley
"The Dead Do Not Want Us Dead" by Jane Hirshfield
"Flowering Vetch" by Jane Hirshfield
"A Shropshire Lad, II" by A. E. Housman
"What the Living Do" by Marie Howe
"Dreams" by Langston Hughes
"Song: to Celia" by Ben Jonson
"The Time Before Death" by Kabir, translated by Robert Bly
"Otherwise" by Jane Kenyon
"The Still Life" by Galway Kinnell
"If— " by Rudyard Kipling
"One Heart" by Li-Young Lee
"Daphnis and Chloe" by Haniel Long
"A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"First Fig" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
"You Can't Have It All" by Barbara Ras
"O mistress mine, where are you roaming?" from Twelth Night by William Shakespeare
"All the World's a Stage" by William Shakespeare
"The Truly Great" by Stephen Spender
"Live blindly and upon the hour" by Trumbull Stickney
"The One You Wanted to Be Is the One You Are" by Jean Valentine
"The First Angel" by Jean Valentine
"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" (audio only) by James Wright
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