Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The entire first stanza of "To the Virgins" is about flowers. The speaker uses the flower's life cycle to emphasize the brevity (shortness) of human life and the importance of seizing opportunities while one can.
- Line 1: The speaker tells the virgins to gather their rosebuds while they can. By the end of the poem it becomes clear that rosebuds are probably a metaphor for marriage. The virgins only have so much time to marry, just like the rosebuds are only worth picking for so long.
- Lines 3-4: The speaker notes how a flower that is alive one day may just as easily be dead the next. Flowers don't actually "smile"; the speaker gives a human quality (smiling) to an inhuman thing (flower) here, which is called personification.
- Line 15: The speaker doesn't actually refer to flowers here, but the word "prime," as in the expression "prime of life" recalls the idea of ripe rosebuds from line 1.
The entire second stanza of "To the Virgins" is about the sun's "race" (7) through the sky. The farther the sun progresses through the sky, the closer it is to setting. Likewise, the further one progresses through life (the older one gets) the closer one is to the end (death). The speaker doesn't come out and say that, but it's very strongly implied, both in the second stanza and throughout the poem.
- Line 5: The speaker calls the sun the "glorious lamp of heaven." "Lamp" is here a metaphor for the sun, which is like a lamp in that it "lights up" the heavens just like a lamp lights up a room.
- Lines 6: The sun gets "higher" as it progresses from east to west. Have you ever noticed that it looks "low" in the morning, is directly overhead at noon, and is low again when it "sets"? The sun doesn't really "get" "higher"; this is attributing human characteristics (moving up) to a non-human thing (the sun), which is called personification.
- Line 7: The sun isn't a human thing, so it can't really "run" a "race." This is personification again.
- Line 8: The sun doesn't really "set"; the earth rotates. "Setting" is here a metaphor for what appears to happen at the end of the day. Also, "setting" is a human activity, and the sun isn't human; so this is more personification.
Temperature is a powerful metaphor in this poem for youth, health, vigor, and the like.
You know how when you first take something out of the microwave it's really hot? Now imagine human life as that microwave burrito. When you're young – i.e., just out of the microwave – you're still hot, but as you get older you get colder (hey that rhymes!). Who likes a cold burrito anyway?
- Line 5: The speaker calls the sun a "glorious lamp." "Lamp" is a metaphor for the sun, which lights up the sky just like a lamp. Both "lamp" and "sun" suggest warmth.
- Line 8: When the sun sets, the temperature drops. "Setting" is here a metaphor for what appears to happen at the end of the day. Also, "setting" is a human activity, and the sun isn't human; this is called personification.
- Lines 9-10: The speaker calls youth the best "age." People aren't literally "warmer" when they're younger, so "warmer" is here a metaphor for health, vigor, and other things we associate with youth.
Youth and Age
In the third stanza, the speaker straight-up says that youth is the best time of life. This is partly because it is associated with life and health rather than death and sickness. Elsewhere in the poem, he celebrates the "prime" of one's life, the time when a person is most desirable for marriage (i.e., still young enough to look good and, perhaps, have children). In many ways, the poem says what all of us have always known: getting old is kind of a bummer.
- Line 1: The speaker tells the virgins to gather their "rosebuds" while they still can (i.e., while they're still ripe, not old or dying). By the end of the poem it becomes clear that rosebuds are probably a metaphor for marriage.
- Line 2: The speaker reminds the virgins that time ("Old time") is passing and that flowers may die soon. Time doesn't literally fly, so flight is a metaphor for the passage of time. While the flowers are a metaphor for marriage, they also seem to be a metaphor for human life, which can be just as fleeting.
- Line 4: We associate death with old age, and the speaker says that the flowers may die soon. The flowers are a metaphor for human life, which can end suddenly at any time, with no discernible reason.
- Lines 6-8: The sun's progress ("race") through sky is a metaphor for a human's journey through life. The farther along we get – the higher, in the metaphor – the closer we are to "setting," or death. The sun doesn't really "set" or "get" higher; this type of attribution of human qualities or actions to a non-human thing is called personification.
- Lines 9-10: The "first" period ("age") of our life is best, the speaker says. He clearly means youth, or the time when we are not cold (dead) but rather "warmer." The temperatures here are a metaphor for health, vigor, and youth. (One's temperature doesn't literally change over the course of one's life.)
- Lines 11-12: The speaker presents the process of aging as a gradual decline, where everything gets progressively worse. "Spent" (meaning "used up") is a metaphor for the loss of one's youth.
- Line 15: Old age is described as the loss of one's "prime" (i.e., the time when one is most active, most able to get married, etc.).