The best poems about the brevity of life selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Carpe diem: seize the day. The Roman poet Horace said it first and said it best, as with so many things. Yet many English poets have put their distinctive stamp on the carpe diem motif, exhorting us to seize the day, to make the most of life, to ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, in Robert Herrick’s well-known phrase, or to ‘Stop and consider! Life is but a day’, as Keats has it in ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Below we’ve gathered together ten of our favourite ‘carpe diem’ poems in English, all of which warn us about the brevity of life and encourage us to get on with it while we still can.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 12.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white …
‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’: so begins one of the more famous ‘Procreation Sonnets’, the suite of 17 sonnets that begin Shakespeare’s cycle of poems to the Fair Youth. Shakespeare presents a series of images suggesting the passing of time and the ageing and decaying of living things. Observing how everything decays and dies, Shakespeare begins to question the Fair Youth’s beauty, which he has been praising till now: even the Youth, young as he is now, will grow old and die. And the only thing that can ‘defend’ us from this inevitable process is breeding, so that as we grow old we can be content that we left behind something that will outlast us.
Robert Herrick, ‘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 …
The poem’s message is straightforward: Herrick is addressing ‘the virgins’. This provides another clue as to what he is driving at. Like Andrew Marvell’s seduction lyric ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (see below), Herrick is advising the virgins to ‘make much of time’ by enjoying themselves before their youth and beauty fade. And yet encouraging a load of young people who haven’t had sex yet has never been couched in such delightful verse as Herrick deploys here. This is one of the best ‘seize the day’ poems in English – and probably the most famous.
Francis Quarles, ‘The Brevity of Life’.
And what’s a life? A weary pilgrimage,
Whose glory in one day doth fill the stage
With childhood, manhood, and decrepit age.
And what’s a life? The flourishing array
Of the proud summer-meadow, which to-day
Wears her green plush, and is to-morrow hay.
Read on this dial, how the shades devour
My short-lived winter’s day! hour eats up the hour;
Alas! the total’s but from eight to four …
Quarles (1592-1644) is not a name that readily springs to mind, even to the mind of poetry fans. But ‘The Brevity of Life’ provides an early example of the ‘seize the day’ motif in English poetry. ‘Hour eats up hour’, as Quarles vividly puts it.
Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood …
As well as being one of the greatest carpe diem poems in all of English literature, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is also a celebrated example of the seduction lyric. Marvell is attempting to woo his mistress, to persuade her to go to bed with him, by pointing out that the grave beckons and they’ll be in it sooner than she realises. Marvell probably wrote this poem just after the English Civil War, when tens of thousands of British men lost their lives, so one can understand his urgency.
Percy Shelley, ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’. The first two lines of Shelley’s poem, which is sometimes known as ‘Mutability’, allude to Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’. It’s a poem about the brevity of all things – all hopes, desires, and delights the world has to offer are short-lived and doomed to die. Everything is fleeting and transitory. Shelley himself would be dead before the age of 30, after drowning in a storm at sea just off the coast of Italy.
W. E. Henley, ‘O Gather Me the Rose’.
O gather me the rose, the rose,
While yet in flower we find it,
For summer smiles, but summer goes,
And winter waits behind it.
For with the dream foregone, foregone,
The deed foreborn forever,
The worm Regret will canker on,
And time will turn him never …
Its title and first line a nod to Herrick’s opening line, this poem comes from the writer and editor who also gave us ‘Invictus’ (and the man who was the inspiration for Long John Silver in Treasure Island).
A. E. Housman, ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more …
The second poem in Housman’s 63-poem cycle, A Shropshire Lad (1896), this lyric is spoken by a twenty year-old lad – the Shropshire Lad of the book’s title – who realises that he has already had one score out of his biblical threescore years and ten, so he’d best set about enjoying life – and the sight of cherry blossom – while he can.
Ernest Dowson, ‘Vita Summa Brevis’.
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate …
This poem gave us the phrase ‘the days of wine and roses’. Its full Latin title is ‘Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam’ – ‘the brevity of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes’.
Robert Frost, ‘Carpe Diem’. The title of this Robert Frost poem couldn’t signal its ‘seize the day’ any more explicitly. As with several other poems on this list, Frost alludes to Robert Herrick’s poem in his reference to the ‘gather-roses burden’, as we see Age stalking a couple of children.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘First Fig’. This poem about the shortness of life is itself very short – a single quatrain. It is gloriously defiant and the best justification of ‘burning the candle at both ends’ that’s yet been committed to print.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.