Robert Herrick – “To The Virgins To Make Much of Time”

Three Graces – (detail from The Primavera (or The Allegory of Spring)) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

AG: So therefore the next poem [to Student] – you want to read that please? – Gather.. To The Virgins! – “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time

Student: “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”

AG: How many people have read this poem before? – only five? six? – okay, half the class. This is the poem in the English language that everybody knows as the lightest, brightest, sweetest, nicest lyric. This is the nicest lyric. This is sheer lyric. Go on

Student [reads] “Gather ye rose-buds 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…”.

AG: “The sooner will his race be run,/ And nearer he’s to setting”

Student: That age is best which is the first,

AG: That age is best which is the first,

Student: “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.”

AG: Okay, that’s eight syllables, seven syllables, eight syllables, seven syllables – dig? – “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may” (eight syllables) – ,”Old Time is still a-flying”, “And this same flower that smiles today”, “Tomorrow will be dying”. So there’s a basic shot on that, and all the stanzas..and there’s only one.. I think there may be one variant on that – “The-glor-ious-lamp-of-heav-en-the-sun” (ten syllables, oddly, unless you say “The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun”, then you get eight again) – “The-glori-ous-lamp-of-heaven-the-sun”. So he’s got this really interesting shot, where he’s got both ways, where you’ve got, every single line is eight-seven, eight-seven, even-seven, eight-seven (the long lines are eight, the short lines are seven). The lines of eight syllables rhyme with the lines of eight syllables, the lines of seven syllables rhyme with the lines of seven syllables, and he throws this really great syncopation -“the glorious lamp of heaven, the sun”. which, as you read it, was “The-glor-ious-lamp-of-heav-en-the-sun” (that is, a ten-syllable line). And probably, if you go back to the original text, there may be probably an apostrophe or a letter like that – G-L-O.. I don’t know. H-E-A-V- apostrophe N is common – Heav’n – “The glorious lamp of heav’n, the sun.. ”

Student: (What is that? Glorious?)

AG: Glorious – “The – glor-ious- lamp-of-heav’n -the-sun “_ “Glorious” could be two instead of three – “heaven”, could be one instead of two. Do you all hear that? – “glorious lamp of heav’n, the sun.” – yeah – yeah, I count on my fingers. I count on the fingers.

Peter Orlovsky: “Heaven” is one? Heaven is two or one?

AG: Heaven – One. Very often “heaven” is one syllable and you make an apostrophe..

Peter Orlovsky: In this case, is it one or two?

AG: “He gonna heav’n…” In American black talk -“heaven” is one. Pardon me?

Peter Orlovsky: In this case is one?

AG: Yes. In this case is one. I mean, not that it is one, it is that, in his mind, he was calculating like that, you know, and he was having fun saying, “Well, I’ll make this..I’ll make this..”, Well, he wrote that line and he didn’t want to change it., and so he said, “Well, it can be counted it that way”. But in certain kinds of American speech – “Heav’n” , when you say it that way, “We’re goin’ to heav’n”, that’s one (or one and a tail, one and a tenth). So it’s not unnatural, it’s not just poetic, it’s talk – I like “And while ye may, go marry”, that’s a really pretty line.

But this poem, you know, is really the great classic archetypal poem that almost everybody…almost every mediocre poet in the English language tried to copy. And also, what’s the meter? – has anybody got any idea? – what’s the basic meter to the whole thing? – The first line is a weird line – “Gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may” is basically dactylic (dada da da da da da da ), but actually winds up (da-da da-da da-da da-da) iambic. The whole thing moves toward iambic. – “That age is best which is the first/ When youth and blood are warmer”, “But being spent the worse and worst/ Time still suceed the former””- But, actually, if you were counting it as iambic you would say ” But be/ing /spent,/ the worse/, and worst/ Times/ still/ succeed. the former” – (that’s how ideally, or abstractedly, you would read that, but, actually the iambic meter runs counter to the way you’d say it, so, “But being spent, the worse, and worst/ Times still succeed the former” – (so you get “Times” as heavy, and that’s why it’s a good poem because he’s so much a master of knowing where he is in the count, like a good musician (doing the blues, he knows exactly where the… twelve-bar blues – he knows exactly where each line is ending, and where you can pick up on it, (and) was able to break time, or move the time around, or move the stress around

{Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty-seven-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-three-and-a-half minutes in]

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