To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

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 by Andrew Marvell

 

Summary of To His Coy Mistress

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell is a beautiful love poem based on a gentleman wooing his mistress to make love with him.

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell 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 his 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 enough 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.

 

Structure and Form of To His Coy Mistress

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell 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.

The lines in the poem are composed of closed couplet form. It means that each line of the poem rhymes with the line next to it. Such a couplet form presents an idea in the unit of two lines. It was famous in the Neoclassical period. Poets like Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Andrew Marvell were fond of this couplet form. They got the inspiration for using neat and concise couplets from the classical writers of Greece and Rome. However, the rhyme scheme of the poem is also very simple. The lines of the poem contain the AABB rhyme scheme.

 

Literary Devices in To His Coy Mistress

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell contains various literary devices that make the poetic persona’s arguments more appealing and emotionally forceful. Likewise, in the poem, the poet implicitly compares “coyness” to “crime”. It is a metaphor. Here, the poet thinks the coyness of the lady might kill the amorous spirit of his persona. In “long love’s day”, there is an alliteration as well as a personification. Here, the poet innovatively personifies love. The poetic persona uses several hyperboles while wooing his lady love. Such an exaggerated overtone is present in the following line, “Till the conversion of the Jews.”

The poet uses allusions in the following lines, “Love you ten years before the flood” and “Till the conversion of the Jews”. The “flood” refers to Noah’s flood. The second line contains a biblical allusion to the conversion of the Jews. In the poem, “vegetable love” is a metaphor or specifically a metaphysical conceit. In the phrase, “Time’s winged chariot” the poet, first of all, uses personification. It is also an allusion as well as a metaphor. In the last line of the poem, Marvell personifies the sun and says they “will make him run.”

 

Themes in To His Coy Mistress

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell hovers around several themes. The major theme of the poem is carpe diem. Carpe diem is a Latin phrase that means “seize the day!”. Andrew Marvell loved this theme and wrote many poems based on it. In this poem, the poet says that waiting for the right moment to make love, is nothing but the wastage of time. The poetic persona and his beloved should indulge in physical love before their bodies start to become old. The main idea of the poem is, enjoying the moment by forgetting about the future. There is nothing in the future. So, the gentleman in the poem implores his lady love to seize the moment and make love as they have never done before.

Another important theme of the poem is time. Here, the poet portrays time as an antagonist between the lover and the beloved. It is always there to wash their youthful vigor away. Time never waits for the lovers. It flows away in its way. Lovers should not wait for the future as time never waits for them. With such an excellent argument, the poetic persona tells his beloved to make love as soon as they can. In this way, the poet utilizes the theme of time and its transience in favor of the gentleman. He succeeds or not, it is up to the readers. But his arguments are solid!

 

Different Interpretations of To His Coy Mistress

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell is a poem that dates back to the Restoration period. At that time, the bounds and restraints of the Catholic ideals were beginning to fall apart. The restoration of Charles II made Protestant religion strong in England. The Whigs or the Parliamentarians tried to make it the official religion of England. Hence, the poetry of that period reflected the political and religious scenario. Marvell’s poems are the specimens of the sentiment of Restoration England. His speaker reflects Protestant enthusiasm. It is the reason the poet was fond of the theme of “carpe diem”.

In the Restoration period, England also flourished in her trade and commerce. It reached its pinnacle in the Victorian era. The elements of the colonial expansion are present in this poem. The reference to the “Indian Ganges”, reflects the English mindset of expansion and celebration of national glory. Marvell also tries to capture it in his poem.

There is another layer of physicality in the poem. It is solely based on lovemaking. Though there is a spiritual aspect of the poem. The poet connects both in his poem. According to him, these two kinds of love complement each other.

 

To His Coy Mistress as a Metaphysical Poem

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell is a perfect example of Metaphysical Poetry. Andrew Marvell, the poet, belonged to the second generation of Metaphysical poets. John Donne was the fountainhead of the genre and he influenced Marvell to adopt this unique style of the period. Andrew Marvell in this poem employs several metaphysical conceits and other elements of the genre. First of all, the far fetched comparisons between coyness and crime, vegetables and love, and time and chariot, make it a metaphysical poem.

However, the paradoxical sentences along with the forceful arguments of the poetic persona take the poem to a next level. The stock images of romance are tinged with metaphysical colors. The unfamiliar yet unique images in the poem give it a brand new embodiment of love poetry. The image of lovers in the lines, “Let us roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up into one ball” can be taken as an example. The conceits, “iron gates of life”, “amorous birds of prey”, “Deserts of vast eternity”, and “vegetable love” make this poem a specimen of metaphysical poetry.

 

Analysis of To His Coy Mistress

Lines 1-20

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.

In these first lines, there are 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.

 

Lines 21-32

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 next lines, 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 these lines, 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.

 

Lines 33-46

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 last set of lines, 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 set of lines 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.

 

Historical Background

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.

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  • Avatar Justin Brown says:

    Superficially a ‘carpe diem’ poem, this really belongs to the poetry of seduction. The former MP for Hull doing his poetic best to get his young lady into bed. The sly couplet, ‘The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace’, is the ultimate argument. If that doesn’t get her consent, there is nothing more to be tried.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Which is quite dark when you think about it!

  • Avatar Becca Mahan says:

    The poem is very clear and written by a distinguished Poet which came to my mind from years ago..Many years ago intertwining with life’s experience in time.Perhaps now in the sustaining present.It reflects through music and memories of Celtic and Nordic emotions from being a painter or once writing.Literature and old books.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m not quite sure what your comment is suggesting. Sorry.

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