To His Coy Mistress By Andrew Marvell
This poem is a famous example of ‘carpe diem’ – seize the day – poetry. These poems urge us to make the most of today, for who knows what tomorrow brings. We should not pointlessly wait for death to arrive. This idea clashes with the puritanical ideals of the time, which emphasised the importance of denying personal pleasures in order to prepare oneself for meeting God in death.
• This poem is a dramatic monologue.
• The silent listener (the mistress) is addressed but we do not hear her voice.
• There is the sense that we, the reader, are eavesdropping on an intimate conversation.
• The speaker is anonymous and we are given no information about him or his mistress.
Summary of the poem
“To his Coy Mistress” is a poem in carpe diem tradition. It is a plea from a lover to his beloved to forget her coyness and engage in the pleasures of love. The poem begins abruptly with these words, “Had we but world enough and time”, he continues, “this coyness lady were no crime”. The reason for such a plea is being established using a series of hyperbolic comparisons. If there is enough time and space, then, the coyness that the lady shows would have been appreciated. Then, the poet would have sat by the river Humber in England and complained about the coyness of the lady who would be sitting on the banks of the river Ganges on the other side of the world. He would begin to love her ten years before the biblical flood and, she, if she wants, could refuse until the comparison of the Jews i.e. the end of time itself. Marvell argues that his vegetable love could slowly grow greater than the empires. If he had time, he would devote a hundred years to praise her eyes, two hundred two each breast, and thirty thousand to the rest of her. He would spend at least an age to admire every part and the last age might praise her heart.
In the second stanza, the poet portrays the picture of a man who lives with the fear of death. The awareness of times winged chariot hurrying near frightens us all. In our destined tombs, the loved one’s beauty will slowly but surely turn to dust. The virginity that she coyly preserves may be taken up by worms. He calls the grave, ‘a fine and private place’ though not a place of ‘embrace’. In the last stanza, Marvell reaches the conclusion that, as they are young and beautiful, rather than languishing as prisoners of time, ‘let us sport while we may’. He suggests that the strength of the man and the sweetness of the woman when united may‘roll-up’ into one ball. The violence of sexual art is described through the image ‘tear our pleasures’ which acts as an image of the desperation with which they try to defeat times winged chariot. Finally, with reference to an incident described in bible (when Joshua made sun stand still), he asserts that even time would not be able to cease their love. The poem convinces the readers about the pleasures of physical love with its syllogistic arguments and its unique tone mixing eroticism and wit.
“To His Coy Mistress” Questions and Answers
1. What does the speaker entreat of his love?
Answer: The speaker is asking his mistress to make the most of their time together and to “devour” and “tear” each other.
2. What justifications or reasoning does the speaker employ to persuade his mistress?
Answer: Examples: time stops when he and his mistress are together, she deserves him, he loves her, time is moving quickly so they ought to act now, she is still young enough to enjoy him, and the sun, or happiness, cannot be fully enjoyed until they enjoy each other.
3. Identify the allusion in line eight.
Answer: The speaker says he would love his mistress for “ten years before the Flood.” This alludes to the Great Flood in Christian history, which killed all but Noah and those on his ark.
4. Identify an instance of hyperbole in this poem.
Answer: Examples: the reference to the conversion of the Jews; his love growing as vast as empires; needing a hundred years to praise her forehead; two hundred years to adore each breast; thirty thousand years to adore the rest of her body.
5. How would you describe his tone? Do the tone and message remain constant throughout, or is there a shift in the poem?
Answer: The poem’s tone is one of excitement and attempts at persuasion. The speaker is trying to woo his mistress to act on her feelings. The tone shifts throughout the poem from one of detached observer to needy persuader. As the poem progresses, the speaker’s attempts at winning over his mistress come more frequently and remain more pointed.
6. How is time presented in this work?
Answer: Time is presented through a series of allusions and metaphors: the Ganges river, biblical floods, chariot races, marble-temples, and predatory birds.
7. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem? Are there any lines that do not follow this scheme? Why?
Answer: The poem is written in rhyming couplets. The lines that do not follow the scheme are lines 7-8, 23-24, and 27-28. These lines are examples of half-rhyme, lines whose rhymes are forced to ‘fit’ because of the poem’s rhyme scheme.
8. How is this poem’s message similar to Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much Time?”
Answer: Both poems encourage women to not hide away from men since time passes by too quickly. Both poems encourage women to be open and loving with the men they care for—in this poem’s case, particularly with the speaker.
Analysis of the Poem
To His Copy Mistress is a love poem written in the particular tradition of Ben Jonson and Petrarch. But it employs metaphysical reasoning and wit. It combines the best of both traditions, as it were.
Petrarch, an Italian poet of the 14th century started a new convention of courtly poetry. In his love poems, the mistress is presented as beautiful and virtuous, but at the same time, she is cold and unresponding. Poems of this literary convention plead with the mistress to put off her coyness and accept love while the lovers are still young. To describe this stock experience, poets used imagery which is extravagant as well as rhetorical. Poets of the first half of the 17th century followed the above tradition, but they also incidentally made fun of the Petrarch an extravagance. Such poems employ what is known as the carpe diem theme and the poem under discussion belongs to carpe diem tradition.
The poem is developed in three stages. The first section is in the manner of elaborating a hypothesis. The second section raises a logical objection to what is proposed in the first stanza. The last section gives an orthodox conclusion to what has been logically developed in the first two sections. The beginning of each section suggests a particular stage in the logical process of thinking. While the first section begins with the conditional ‘if’ the second section opens with a halting ‘but’ and the third section starting with ‘therefore’ points to a conclusion. Logical process is linguistically presented, and it is a rare instance of classical craftsmanship.
Within the framework of logical analysis, a number of hyperboles and images of emotional appeal are employed. The content or experience the poem seeks to convey is constructed in three stages;
(i) If there is a vast span of time and space, the lover tells his mistress, he would praise her beauty and court her love until the conversion of the Jews,
(ii) But, argues the lover, life is short and it does not permit such a leisurely approach. In the eventuality of her death, her values like honour and virtue are meaningless,
(iii) Therefore, he exhorts his mistress to accept his love while there is yet youth and time.
To make this abstract reasoning highly convincing, the poem employs witty exaggeration and playful conceits.
The poem begins in a playful, conversational tone. It looks as though the two lovers are engaged in a dialogue. It portrays the typical Petrarchan convention of compliment. Had we but world enough, and Time, This coyness Lady were no crime. We could sit down, and think which way To walk and pass our long love’s day.
With the dexterous use of hyperboles, the lover speaks of ideal courtship. If they had enough time, he would be willing to court her till she eventually accepted his love. He would spend a hundred years to praise her eyes and forehead, two hundred to adore each breast, forehead two hundred to adore each breast, and thirty thousand to the rest.
Introducing the language of arithmetic into love poetry, the lover observes that the lady deserved this pomp and attention. While she would like to pick up the rubies by the Ganges he would complain of his courtship by the Humber in England. The leading image of this section is vegetable love. Such love is possible only when the lovers are granted endless world and time.
My vegetable love should grow.
Vaster than empires, and slower.
The geographical and botanical allusions in the above lines are meant to destroy our sense of time and place and to prove thereby the timelessness of ideal love. But there is also a feeling of exasperation in the lover’s mind suggested by the central image. Vegetable love, though natural or spontaneous, is somewhat undirected as well as unsupportive in its growth. It suggests a lack of intelligent direction in imagined courtship. It is an expression of unthinking, adolescent feeling. The image, though indirectly, serves as an ironic comment on the proposal for their inconceivable courtship.
There is a sudden shift of thought in the second section. The lover is reminded of the brief human existence by the key image ‘Time’s winged chariot:’ Time waits for no one, and it marches on relentlessly.
But at my back, I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
From the exuberance of feeling depicted in the first section, the lover now turns his attention to harsh reality. He shudders to visualize the vast deserts of eternity. The above lines indicate an important growth of sensibility. There is a movement from adolescent hyperbole to mature discrimination. The lover urges his mistress to grow up in the face of actuality.
The last two lines of this section give a grim picture of the prospect of death. If the lady does not opt for human contact, the grave worm will claim her chastity. This is an example of controlled irony.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Fine and private ironically match with her proud coyness. In a tone of frightening, sarcasm, the lover says the grave worm will ultimately taste and caress her body. The lover, though exasperated, still frightens and persuades his mistress. The ironic understatement of this section stands in contrast to the ironic overstate of the first section.
In the last section, the lover once again dwells on the lady’s beauty and youth. He wins her attention and succeeds in his effort. Giving up her coyness, she pours out her hidden passion. The lovers allow their fierce passion to run riot. The movement towards explosion is brought out in the last ten lines.
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.
There is a compression of feelings and images:
(i) Let us devour of prey
(ii) Let us roll our strength and all our sweetness into one compounded ball,
(iii) Let us strife through the iron gates of life.
The images, suggesting the exuberance and swiftness of love, are too obvious to comment upon. They are images of sensuous appeal. The final couplet, using a kind of pun or paradox, sums up the whole situation and gives it a conventional conclusion. The poem is an example of how a great poet, choosing a conventional theme and following a particular literary tradition, can yet produce a poem of high intensity.
“And your quaint honour turn to dust, ”
‘Quaint’ = charming or sweet. It is also a
c17th pun for vagina.
The poem is written in iambic tetrameter
I do not like green eggs and ham
I do not like them Sam I Am
The regular “sing-song” rhythm and rhyme creates a “comic” feel which contrasts strongly with the underlying theme of life and death.
Stanza 1 – ten couplets
Stanza 2 – six couplets
Stanza 3 – seven couplets