‘To my Inconstant Mistress’ by Thomas Carew is a three-stanza poem that is made out of sets of five lines, or quintains. Carew has chosen to structure this piece with a consistent rhyming pattern of ababb, alternating stanza by stanza as the poet saw fit. There is also a clear metrical pattern at play in the verses. The piece is written in iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines are made up of four sets of two beats. Each of these beats is composed of one unstressed and one stressed syllable.
It is important to note before reading this piece that Carew has chosen to write in the second person. This means that the reader of the poem takes on the role of the “inconstant mistress.” It is this repositioning that gives greater force to the speaker’s strong, and sometimes harsh, words.
Summary of To my Inconstant Mistress
The poem begins with the speaker stating that his ex-lover, who left him or chose to cheat on him, will soon come to regret that choice. He explains that fate, which knows he on his side, is going to reward him in the future. Her “inconstancy” will prove to be a “curse.”
In the next section, the speaker goes on to describe what his life is going to be like. It is clear in these lines that he is seeking to make his ex-lover jealous of his hopeful future. Sometime soon he will meet another, one who is more beautiful than she ever was. This new lover will fix his broken and degraded soul, of which the “mistress” was the cause. While the speaker tries to make it seem as if he is over this “mistress,” his words and in the way in which they are put together, show that he is still very hurt.
In the final stanza, the speaker takes on the mistress’s fate. Due to the fact that she was so disloyal to him, she will suffer greatly in the future. By the end of the poem, he has determined that his mistress will be going to hell because of how she treated him.
Analysis of To my Inconstant Mistress
When thou, poor excommunicate
From all the joys of love, shalt see
The full reward and glorious fate
Which my strong faith shall purchase me,
Then curse thine own inconstancy.
A reader will immediately notice upon beginning this piece that the speaker is directing his words to his “Inconstant Mistress” who is referenced in the title. This is the “you” to whom he refers throughout his quintains.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by outlining the basic reason why his past mistress should regret being “inconstant” or un-loyal. He uses a number of names for this woman throughout the poem, but never her own. The first lines refer to her as the “poor excommunicate.” She has been excommunicated by the speaker, due to her actions, from “the joys of love.” This is a religious term generally used to refer to the stripping of someone’s right to participate in the sacraments and services of the Christian Church.
This is quite a harsh way to describe someone who was once one’s mistress. It is clear whatever the lover did, likely being unfaithful, hurt the speaker deeply. He feels as if her choices have condemned her to an unhappy life. She will now miss out on the “full reward and glorious fate” the speaker will participate in. He was faithful and true, thereby earning the chance to be happy. The speaker refers to happiness as something which can be “purchased.” He believes he has earned it like one might earn an award or commendation.
The final lines of the section are used to inform the “inconstant mistress” that she will live to “curse [her] own inconstancy.” Eventually, perhaps not in the immediate future, she will regret ever doing him wrong.
A fairer hand than thine shall cure
That heart, which thy false oaths did wound;
And to my soul, a soul more pure
Than thine shall by Love’s hand be bound,
And both with equal glory crown’d.
In the second stanza, although still clearly quite angry with the listener, the speaker explains how he is going to move on and improve his life away from her. Now that she is gone from his immediate orbit, he will be able to find a “fairer hand than” hers to “cure” his heart. She has injured him deeply and he is seeking out someone who is more beautiful than she was, to heal him. It was her “false oaths” which “did wound” his heart.
It is clear in these lines that the speaker is making a concerted effort to appear as if he is moving on, even when his words reveal he is still upset. He continues on to speak of his soul and how another “soul more pure” will become “bound” to him. A new lover will become to the speaker and they will be in “equal glory crown’d.” He will find someone who is on the same emotional page as he is and is worthy of his love.
Then shalt thou weep, entreat, complain
To Love, as I did once to thee;
When all thy tears shall be as vain
As mine were then, for thou shalt be
Damn’d for thy false apostasy.
In the final stanza, the speaker concludes his angry speech by explaining how “thou,” the mistress, will react when she sees his happiness. Firstly, she will “weep, entreat” and “complain” that she has been treated unfairly. To “Love” the mistress will ask that everything is put back as it was. She will regret that she ever cheated on her lover. Her “entreat[ing]” to love will resemble the speaker’s own pleas to her when she betrayed him.
The speaker states that the tears she might cry during this time will be completely “in vain” just as he was when he was broken-hearted. The poem concludes with a dark statement in which the speaker tells his ex-lover that she will be “Damn’d for” her “false apostasy.” She claimed to be devoted to him, but that was not the case. He feels the loss so intensely that he thinks she will be going to hell for the sin.