Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Carpe Diem

Like so many themes in British poetry, carpe diem came to the British poets from the classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome. The phrase comes from the first century B.C. Latin poet Horace, who in Ode, I. xi, tells his mistress that their future is in the hands of the gods. Life is short, so they must “enjoy the day,” for they do not know if there will be a tomorrow. The theme was particularly popular in seduction poems of the seventeenth century, whose young male poets followed Horace in reminding a would-be mistress that time flies, and they should enjoy their love before they grow too old. The theme became well known through translations and adaptations of the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus's lyric “Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus.” In Thomas Campion's version, “My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love” (1601), for example, the poet argues that while the sun and stars may set, they rise again, whereas when our “little light” sets “we sleep one ever-during night.” Ben Jonson's adaptation, “Come, my Celia, let us prove,/While we can, the sports of love” (a song from his play Volpone [1606]), is delightfully brief and light hearted, as most poems on this theme are. Jonson tells Celia that the sin is not in enjoying their love but in letting the world know about it. “Why should we defer our joys?” he tells her, summing up the heart of the carpe diem theme.

Robert Herrick, a Cavalier poet who was known as the first of the “sons of Ben” (or followers of Ben Jonson), wrote many lyrics for a number of probably fictional women, many of them on the subject of life's brevity. In “Corinna's Going A-Maying” (1648), he urges a young beauty to rise early on May Day morning to enjoy the coming of spring in the traditional village May Day rituals of rebirth and the flowering of young love. “Our life is short,” he reminds her, “And, as a vapor or a drop of

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