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The Best Carpe Diem Poems: Poems about Time, Death and Loss

Which poets wrote the best carpe diem poems of all time? Before we consider that question, let's define what the term "carpe diem" means and examine the history of the genre briefly. The words Carpe Diem begin the last line of a Latin poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 8 BC), who is better known today as Horace. The poem appears in Horace's Odes, book one, number eleven. Carpe Diem means something like "seize the day" or "pluck the day, while it's still ripe." Carpe Diem poems consider time and its ravages, death and loss. Some of the poems are of the "eat, drink and make merry because tomorrow we die" ilk. But poets have found other approaches to the subject as well ...

compiled by Michael R. Burch

The Top Ten Carpe Diem Poems in the English Language

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time by Robert Herrick
When I Was One-and-Twenty by A. E. Housman
To Daffodils by Robert Herrick
Go, Lovely Rose by Edmund Waller
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchohare longam by Ernest Dowson
Song for the Last Act by Louise Bogan
Sweet Rose of Virtue by William Dunbar

Honorable Mention Carpe Diem Poems and Songs: "First Fig" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday" by Walter Savage Landor, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe, "After the Persian" by Louise Bogan, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, "Carpe Diem" by Robert Frost, "This Living Hand" by John Keats, "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz, "Dreams" by Langston Hughes, "Harlem ('A Dream Deferred')" by Langston Hughes, "Song: to Celia ('Drink to me only with thine eyes')" by Ben Jonson, "Sonnet XII ('When I do count the clock that tells the time')" by William Shakespeare, "Mutability ('The flower that smiles today')" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" by A. E. Housman, "Piano" by D. H. Lawrence, "O Gather Me the Rose" by W. E. Henley, "A Last Word" by Ernest Dowson, "The Brevity of Life" by Francis Quarles, "Autumn Day"  by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Achilles" by Rainer Maria Rilke, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson, "Only the Good Die Young" by Billy Joel, "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw, "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin, "House at Pooh Corner" by Loggins and Messina, "We May Never Pass this Way Again" by Seals and Crofts, "Get It While You Can" by Janis Joplin, "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics, "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars, "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson, "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf

First Fig
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday
by Walter Savage Landor

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Lord, it is time. Let the immense summer go.
Lay your long shadows over the sundials
and over the meadows, let the free winds blow.
Command the late fruits to fatten and shine;
O, grant them another Mediterranean hour!
Urge them to completion, and with power
convey final sweetness to the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, never will build one.
Who's alone now, shall continue alone;
he'll wake, read, write long letters to friends,
and pace the tree-lined pathways up and down,
restlessly, as autumn leaves drift and descend.

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

We cannot know the beheaded god
nor his eyes' forfeited visions. But still
the figure's trunk glows with the strange vitality
of a lamp lit from within, while his composed will
emanates dynamism. Otherwise
the firmly muscled abdomen could not beguile us,
nor the centering loins make us smile
at the thought of their generative animus.
Otherwise the stone might seem deficient,
unworthy of the broad shoulders, of the groin
projecting procreation's triangular spearhead upwards,
unworthy of the living impulse blazing wildly within
like an inchoate star—demanding our belief.
You must change your life.

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of wanton loveliness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that men hold dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you
through lustrous flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no leaf nor petal of rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair flower of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would plant love's root again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

This Living Hand
by John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchohare longam
by Ernest Dowson

"The brevity of life forbids us to entertain hopes of long duration" —Horace

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.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

On the Eve of His Execution
by Chidiock Tichborne

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

by William Blake

He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity's sun rise.

When I Was One-and-Twenty
by A. E. Housman

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

To Daffodils
by Robert Herrick

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
    You haste away so soon.
As yet the early-rising sun
    Hath not attained his noon.
        Stay, stay,
    Until the hasting day
        Has run
    But to the even-song;
And, having prayed together, we
    Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you;
    We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
    As you, or any thing.
        We die.
    As your hours do, and dry
    Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
    Ne'er to be found again.

Go, Lovely Rose
by Edmund Waller

     Go, lovely Rose,—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
     That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

     Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
     That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.

     Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retir'd:
     Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desir'd,
And not blush so to be admir'd.

     Then die, that she
The common fate of all things rare
     May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.

A Last Word
by Ernest Dowson

Let us go hence: the night is now at hand;
The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
Laughter or tears, for we have only known
Surpassing vanity: vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.
Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild Asters
by Sara Teasdale

In the spring I asked the daisies
  If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
  Always knew.

Now the fields are brown and barren,
  Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
  Not one knows.

Excerpts from "More Poems"
by A. E. Housman


Here dead we lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

it is at moments after i have dreamed
by e. e. cummings

it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when(being fool to fancy)i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds
the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always)and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;
moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination,when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms:
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
—turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.

The Wild Swans at Coole
by William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Song For The Last Act
by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

The Death of a Toad
by Richard Wilbur

       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

Acquainted With The Night
by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Bustle In A House
by Emily Dickinson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.

The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time
by Robert Herrick

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.
That age is best which is the first,
   When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
   Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may for ever tarry.

Song: To Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

More Carpe Diem Poems:

"Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rainer Maria Rilke
"Dreams" by Langston Hughes
"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII ["All the world's a stage"] by William Shakespeare
"Loveliest of Trees" by A. E. Housman
"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III ["O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?"] by William Shakespeare
"The Truly Great" by Stephen Spender
"Barter" by Sara Teasdale
"I saw a man pursuing the horizon" by Stephen Crane
Ode 11 ["Strive not, Leuconoë, to know what end"] by Horace
"We live in deeds" by Philip James Bailey
"The City" by C. P. Cavafy
"Another Song" ["Are they Shadows that we See?"] by Samuel Daniel
"Youth's the Season Made for Joys" by John Gay
"Catch What You Can" by Jean Garrigue
"O Gather me the Rose" by William Ernest Henley
"The Dead Do Not Want Us Dead" by Jane Hirschfield
"Flowering Vetch" by Jane Hirshfield
"What the Living Do" by Marie Howe
"The Time Before Death" by Kabir, translated by Robert Bly
"Otherwise" by Jane Kenyon
"The Still Life" by Galway Kinnell
"If—" by Rudyard Kipling
"One Heart" by Li-Young Lee
"Daphnis and Chloe" by Haniel Long
"A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"You Can't Have It All" by Barbara Ras
"Nic Dwa Razy (Nothing Twice)" by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
"Live blindly and upon the hour" by Trumbull Stickney
"The One You Wanted to Be Is the One You Are" by Jean Valentine
"The First Angel" by Jean Valentine
"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" by James Wright
Three Airs for the Beggar’s Opera, Air XXII by John Gay
"A Song On the End of the World" by Czeslaw Milosz   
"Anything Can Happen" by Seamus Heaney
"Be Drunk" by Charles Baudelaire
"Carpe Diem" by Robert Frost
"Days" by Ralph Waldo Emerson   
"Exact" by Rae Armantrout   
"I Have News for You" by Tony Hoagland
"I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl" (443) by Emily Dickinson  
"Live Blindly and Upon the Hour" by Trumbull Stickney
"My life closed twice before its close" (96) by Emily Dickinson
"My life has been the poem I would have writ" by Henry David Thoreau
"O Me! O Life!" by Walt Whitman
"Refresh. Refresh. Refresh." by Noah Eli Gordon
"Song of Myself, III" by Walt Whitman
"Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant   
"the gate" by Tadeusz Różewicz   
"The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz   
"To Rosa" by Abraham Lincoln   
"When I consider every thing that grows" (Sonnet 15) by William Shakespeare   

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