May 12 2011

#12 “Carpe Diem: Seize the Day”

From a stranger in Boulder, Colorado

There may be no singular Latin expression that has endured to a greater degree than the famous “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day.” What a fantastic notion this is; for in this one phrase lies an obvious but difficult key to happiness. This aphorism encourages us to take advantage of the time that we have on this earth, to indulge our human impulses, and to drink life to the lees; but what I find particularly interesting is that most people tend to accept this slogan as an invitation to live in such a manner that casts off responsibilities, duties, or daily tasks. I’m not sure if this was the original intention of this famous phrase.

To better understand this sentiment, I think it is necessary to examine some of the most famous literature associated with this quote from the English Renaissance. To be fair, a lot of Carpe Diem poems do seem to deal with physical pleasures and indulging our lustful desires. This idea is evident in poems such as “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell and John Donne’s “The Flea.” However, the most famous Carpe Diem poem of all time is arguably “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick. This is the poem in which the speaker encourages the virgins to gather rosebuds “while they may.” One logically assumes that the address of the poems to the “virgins” is meant as an encouragement for them to engage in sexual pleasures. This is undeniably true, but Herrick never actually mentions sex in the poem, nor does he encourage irresponsibility or immorality. In fact, what he specifically encourages the virgins to do is to get married; so while Herrick is encouraging the ladies to enjoy physical pleasures, he is also supporting responsibility.

Progressing further, another famous Carpe Diem poem that seems (at a superficial examination) to encourage a lackadaisical lifestyle is “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” I will concede that the speaker in this poem does encourage an existence focused on pleasure; but what is really interesting is that Sir Walter Raleigh actually wrote a response to this poem (“The Nymph’s Reply”) in which he bombasts this unrealistic lifestyle and accuses the shepherd of being deceitful and embracing fanciful notions too freely.

As a final note, let’s not forget that the most famous Renaissance writer of all time was William Shakespeare. It is important to point this out because much of Shakespeare’s work warned against ideas related to self-indulgence. One small example would be the tragedy of Macbeth in which the title character’s self-serving nature leads to his own pitiful downfall.

So, in conclusion, admire this wolf for his romantic sentiment, acknowledge and respect his idealistic outlook. Go ahead and “Seize the Day” if you will, but take care to remember that tomorrow is just around the corner.