Metaphysical poetry, such as To His Coy Mistress, is a subset of poetry popularized in the late 17th century which focused primarily on the use of what is known as ‘conceit’ – in layman’s terms, a type of comparison that is made between two objects who are consciously nothing alike, therefore the relationship between the two things being compared is completely and utterly confused. Another tenet of metaphysical poetry was the rumination on topics far greater and grander than easy definitions; love was popular, and so was religion, and faith, and belief, and a variety of other topics along those lines. Most metaphysical poets were seldom known in their day as metaphysical poets, did not form the same sort of cohesive movement as the Romantics did in the late 18th century, and were generally considered to be too finicky in their expression. Their work, though emotional and moving, stopped short of expressing the wide ideals behind their writing.
Andrew Marvell was a metaphysical poet writing in the Interregnum period. He sat in the House of Commons between 1659 and 1678, worked with John Milton, and wrote both satirical pieces and love poetry.
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and, very often, such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables… The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
– Samuel Johnson.
To His Coy Mistress Summary
To His Coy Mistress details the efforts of a man towards insisting on his lover’s affection; the unnamed ‘Coy Mistress’ refuses to sleep with the gentleman in question, and the gentleman’s response is to tell her that, had he enough time, he could spend entire centuries admiring her beauty and her innocence; however, human life is short, he does not have this time, and so they should enjoy each other now while they still can, as no-one in death can embrace or feel pleasure. Through loving one another, they can make the most of their brief time on earth, and thus make something of themselves on earth.
It is written in iambic tetrameter, where the lines consist of four iambic feet. This is not the more commonly used iambic pentameter, which has five iambic feet. An iamb is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable.
It is also interesting to note that To His Coy Mistress itself is written much like a poetic thesis, with the problem at the forefront, followed by the current predicament, and ending with the solution, all from the point of view of the lovelorn gentleman who is trying to get his beloved’s affection.
To His Coy Mistress Analysis
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,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
The first stanza has ten couplets, and mimics a traditional format – in this case, the poem itself, although written in the form of a love poem, does not aspire to such lofty heights; the gentleman wishes only for his lady to give into his sexual advances, and so the use of the traditional love elegy format (otherwise known as ‘carpe diem’ poetry) might seem as though it is ironically used. However, given that this was written at a time when such emotion was not freely expressed, the beauty of the language and the overwhelming focus on the woman’s beauty, the respect shown therein, makes the poem quite progressive for its time.
The man begins by explaining, to his lady, how he would go about worshipping her if he had the time. He turns their love into far more than the poem can hold by using expressions such as ‘love you ten years before the Flood’, thus allegorizing it in almost Biblical terms, ‘vegetable love’, which shows how slow and how steady it grows (hinting, as always, at a huge advancement), and then stating that ‘a hundred years’ would be spent on praising her: her eyes, her forehead, two hundred years to worship her breasts, and ‘thirty thousand to the rest’. Above all, To His Coy Mistress does not denigrate or mock the lady’s appearance (such as in Shakespeare’s ‘My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun’) as this was not the use of metaphysical poetry. The use of what is known as an erotic blazon – taken directly from Petrarchan love poetry – deifies the lady of the speaker’s affection; this is the truest form of love that the man feels as though he can manage.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
In the second stanza, the mood of To His Coy Mistress swings abruptly. In the first, there was little haste or rush; the poet took his time describing the woman’s beauty, and all the ways that she deserved to be worshipped, producing, therefore, a flowing, relaxed poem that does not rush itself to the end. By the second stanza, however, the mood shifts, and the poet is at once pleading and urgent, telling the lady that he hears ‘time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ (alluding to Greek mythology, another form of deifying his lady love).
Here, the poet, though no less praising of his woman’s beauty, tells her that he does not have the time to worship her as he sees fit; time is always hurrying closer and closer. ‘Deserts of vast eternity’ await them, and her beauty will fade, her virginity will ‘turn to dust’ along with her honour, and all the waiting will be, it is implied, for naught. The feeling of foreboding, although light, is definitely there.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
However, in the third stanza, the mood brightens again; the poet has a solution! They should embrace each other now, while they have the time, be together now when they are young and beautiful, and not think about the future. ‘Now let us sport while we may’, says the poet, urging his lady love to listen to him – ‘sport’ is a commonly used word, in the 17th century, for sex. He compares them to ‘amorous birds of prey’, thus showing the natural and impulsive urges of their nature – at once, they are both elevated above man and below him.
The last few lines take on the imagery of roiling passion: the poet wants to ‘tear our pleasures with rough strife / through the iron gates of life’, thus somehow elevating their own passion above life itself. Note that the last stanza is the most poetically proficient of all things, and though the feeling is very much a plea to not waste the time that they have, the poet maintains a light-hearted tone through to the end.
Most critics have considered the poem as a traditional carpe diem love poetry, however some critics believe otherwise: they see it as an ironic remark on sexual seduction, and the light-hearted mood helps to support this view. Furthermore, they also point out that the combination of death imagery with the light-hearted view is itself indicative of metaphysical poetry, but perhaps not of carpe diem poetry, a form of poetry which entrenched itself firmly in life.
There are several allusions to To His Coy Mistress made in other works, including Annie Finch’s ‘Coy Mistress’, and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which is a poem written from the point of view of a neurotic young man trying to approach a young lady at a party, and failing to do so.