Feb. 23, 2004

To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick

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Poem: "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," by Robert Herrick, from Selected Poems (Everyman's Library).

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

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.

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 for ever tarry.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633). He published two works in his lifetime—a report on a hospital and a partial history of the British Navy—but we know him today for his diary, which he kept from 1659 to 1669. He came from a lower-middle class family: his father was a tailor and his mother was a maid. He was a bright child, and he was mentored by his cousin, Edward Montagu, who was a friend of Oliver Cromwell. He got married when he was twenty-two and started working at a series of government jobs that allowed him to meet some of the most influential people of his time. He was twenty-six years old when he started writing his diary in 1659.

Today we have dozens of newspapers, magazines, and Web sites for future historians to sort through, but in Pepys's day only one newspaper was published in London and it was controlled by the government, so much of what we know about this period in history has been taken from Pepys's diary. He started the diary at the time of the Restoration in England—when Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth was on the verge of collapse and King Charles II was getting ready to return to power. Pepys wrote about historical events like the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666 and the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667.

During the height of the Plague, as many as 10,000 Londoners died every week. Pepys wrote: "The nights (though much lengthened) are grown too short to conceal the burials of those that died the day before . . . my brewer's house shut up, and my baker with his whole family dead of the plague." Once, he took a walk through London, came back and wrote in his diary, "But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that had taken leave of the world."

During the Great Fire of 1666, which burnt more than 400 acres of London buildings to the ground, Pepys wrote: "Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

There were other important people in the seventeenth century who kept journals, but they didn't record personal details of their own lives like Pepys did. He wrote about everyday things like going to work, eating dinner, and taking dancing lessons. He was a friendly and talkative man who loved good food and theatre and nights on the town. He was a musician and often went to concerts in London. On one occasion, he scolded himself for being so susceptible to pleasure. Then he wrote, "However, music and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is." He was continually resolving to quit drinking, but he never did. Once, he justified his decision to start drinking again by noting that the doctor to whom he had promised to quit had just died of the plague, and so he was free to break the promise.

He quit writing the diary in 1669, because his eyesight was failing and he was worried that he was going to go blind. He didn't go blind, but he never started writing in his diary again. In 1672, he was elected to Parliament, where he was accused of pro-Catholic sympathies and thrown in the Tower of London for a few months. When he died, he was best known for his contribution to the British Navy, for which he worked from 1684 to 1688. He made sweeping reforms during his time there, and probably did more than any other man to make the Navy the dominant international force it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Almost no one had heard of Pepys's diary in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He wrote it in a mixture of Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, German, shorthand, and his own secret code; and no one had tried to translate it until John Smith in the early nineteenth century. The first complete edition of the diary wasn't published until 1970. It fills nine volumes.

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