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In his "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time", Robert Herrick concluded his carpe diem plea with:

For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

There seems to be two ways to understand this:

  1. If you (the virgins) miss the opportunity of youth, you will forever linger in loneliness

  2. If you (the virgins) lose your virginity now, you can rest and relax for the rest of your lives

I think the origin of this ambiguity originates from the meaning of the word "prime", which can mean both the best period of something (matching the first interpretation) and the first period of something (which may imply virginity). I was discussing this poem in my AP English Literature class and my teacher agrees with the second when all of us read it the first way.

Is there any "canonical" way to understand these two lines?

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In Early Modern English, "prime" could mean "early years, prime of life, fullness of youth", but also "perfection, fullness" and "spring, springtime" (see Shakespeare's Words). "Tarry" could mean "stay for, wait for" (among other meanings; see Shakespeare's Words).

Based on this, interpreting the last stanza as "Get married while you are in the prime of life, otherwise you'll wait forever for an opportunity to find a husband" is perfectly plausible and defensible.

Possibly, the occurrence of the words "virgins" (in the title) and "coy" (in the last stanza) may have inspired a sexual interpretation. It is possible to find both contemporary and older carpe-diem texts that move in that direction. For example, Andre Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is roughly contemporary with Herrick's poem (though published posthumously in 1681). And there are older examples of male characters encouraging female characters to lose their virginity. For example, in Shakspeare's All's Well That Ends Well, the character Parolles discusses virginity at length and tells Helena,

Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth: off with 't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request. (...)

However, both the narrator in Marvell's poem and Parolles are trying to convince a woman to become his lover, while Robert Herrick's poem is not written from that point of view. The narrator in "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is not pushing his own agenda but encouraging young women generally to get married while young. For this reason, the first reading is more plausible than the second, even if it is possible to read the second meaning into Herrick's poem. The second reading would imply, for example, that Herrick's narrator is merely pretending to take a neutral stance while silently hoping that one of those virgins will prefer him.

Reading literature is not like solving a mathematical equation that allows only one solution. Literary texts can usually be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on the literary theory, the "political" agenda one adopts or for other reasons. For this reason, presenting alternative interpretations as "either/or" options of which only one is "correct" does a disservice to literature.

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You are right that there is double meaning in the line

For having lost but once your prime,

The double meaning works because “once” means not only “at some point or period in the past” but also “at one time only” (OED). In a discussion of virginity, a reference to losing something “but once” has a clear implication, and “prime” has the meaning “the beginning or first age of something” (OED) which we can take to be a metaphor for virginity.

However, we have to be careful in teasing out the consequences of the double meaning, because “tarry” does not mean “relax” but rather “wait; linger; abide”. And the idea that virginity might be something a young woman might be anxious about, so that she would relax once it is lost, is a modern idea, and it would be anachronistic to read it back into Herrick’s time, when female virginity was conventionally conceived as something precious, to be preserved for marriage.

So I think it is better to take the last two lines in the context of the stanza, which is explicit that it is advising the virgins to marry:

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.

So the two meanings are: “once you have lost your youth, you may wait in vain to marry (because you are no longer beautiful)” and “once you have lost your virginity (outside of wedlock), you may wait in vain to marry (because you have lost your respectability)”.

These conventional morals seem rather disappointing after the vivid imagery of the first three stanzas (“gathering rosebuds” as a metaphor for sex, “the glorious lamp of heaven” as a metaphor for youthful vigour), and it is natural to look for something more out of the last stanza.

The metaphors in the poem are all about the passage of time leading to decay and death: the flower will be dying tomorrow, the sun races towards its setting, time turns the best to the worst. With these progressions in mind, wouldn’t it be better to tarry? So rather than interpreting the last line as a warning (“you may wait in vain to marry”) we can find in it an opportunity: “through sex, you may be able to delay the progression of time” (though in this reading “forever” would be hyperbole: perhaps if the sex were good enough it would seem like forever).

The question asks whether there is a “canonical” reading of the poem. I recommend not worrying too much about this: poetry is an art form which exploits ambiguity of language to create and support multiple readings. So long as an interpretation is grounded in the text and convincingly argued then there is no need to be concerned whether other interpretations exist. The fact that a poem has a second (or third, etc.) reading does not mean that the first reading is wrong.

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"Prime" does not refer to virginity. After an admittedly brief search, I could not find any examples of such usage. Clearly, what Herrick is referring to is the prime of life, specifically and biologically, the most fecund period of life, when organisms are most sexually active.

His poem is an example of a genre which might be called Carpe Diem seduction that was commonplace in the 17th century and drew on the tenets of Hedonism ("Eat, drink, be merry - and make love - for tomorrow we die.") Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" ("Had we but world enough and time) is an elaborate and beautiful example. Then there is the Clown's song in Twelfth Night:

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

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  • Tsobduko's answer, below, comes from a deeper understanding of the poem than my answer. It makes sense and broadens my view of Herrick's poem. – Denkof Zwemmen May 18 at 21:28

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