Hay is grass cut and dried for use as animal food. The proverb exhorts us to make hay while there is sunshine, that is, to dry the grass by exposing it to the sun, for in Western countries sunshine is scarce. The figurative meaning of the proverb is that we should make the earliest use of our opportunities.
In order to attain success in any undertaking, individuals and nations must have adequate resources and certain qualities like courage, heroism, and skill. Another important, though uncertain, factor which contributes to success is friendliness of circumstance, availability of suitable opportunities. We often observe that admirable qualities and heroic endeavour come to grief when circumstances are hostile. It is of the utmost importance that ambitious individuals and nations should have an eye for suitable opportunities and seize them when they occur. As Cassius puts it in Julius Caesar,
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune: But once omitted, all the rest of life is bound in shallows and in misery.
Favourable opportunities do not often come, and it would be an irretrievable blunder to let them slip by either by not perceiving them or failing to make use of them through cowardice and hesitation.
Mahatma Gandhi had an uncanny sense of the right moments for launching his Civil Disobedience Movements. The Quit India' movement, for example, was timed admirably. The people were more politically conscious than at any other time and were ready for action, while the British were engaged in the war against Germany. Though Gandhi supported the British war aims, he felt that the psychological moment for dealing a final blow to British rule had come.
He was justified in the sequel. The 'Quit India' agitation played a decisive part in hastening Indian independence. If we read the biographies of successful men, we will find that the secret of their success lay in sense 'a tide in the affairs of men' and their prompt and bold use of it. Conversely, the story of ambitious men who have failed is largely the story of lost opportunities and futile regret.
The advice contained in the adage can be interpreted less seriously. Herrick counsels girls to marry when they are young:
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.