One of his best poems, To His Coy Mistress (1681) is the most read of all work by Andrew Marvell, characterized by some critics as the best metaphysical poem in English. Widely anthologized, this poem appears often in undergraduate poetry survey courses. Its carpe diem, or “seize the day,” theme, was a popular one in English Renaissance poetry, drawing on a classical tradition exemplified by Catullus in his “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,” or “Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.” Adopted widely, it appeared in poetry including that by Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and John Donne. Some critics label the poem a near-parody on the theme, as Marvell incorporates so liberally the figurative language of hyperbole. He probably wrote this courtly luric between 1640 and 1650; it first appeared in published form in his 1681 posthumous collection, Miscellaneous Poems. It shares the classic octosyllabic line format with others in the carpe diem group, as well as some attributes employed by metaphysical poets and poetry; both of those techniques were common in Marvell’s work. Its form is that of the logical argument, divided into three sections: the first premise, the second premise, and the conclusion. Because in Marvell’s era coy could mean modest or shy, the subject of his poem requires convincing in order to overcome her shy nature and her modesty.
Marvell’s argument begins with a supposition and its effect, that if he and the “lady” he addresses had “but world enough, and time,” they would surely love at some point. The fallacy in his statement, of course, is that space and time are both always finite. However, he continues to imagine, playing with this fantasy to place both him and his love at specific points of geography during specific eras. Marvell’s precision adds to the absurdity of his notion. He creates imagery in which “We would sit down, and think which way / To walk, and pass our long love’s day.” Marvell’s use of the letter w to begin multiple terms in those two lines, as well as the assonance in long love’s, physically slows the reader, imitating the leisurely action the speaker describes.
The speaker imagines his love in India beside the Ganges River, where she might discover rubies, while he would pass his time by the Humber River in England complaining of their separation. Marvell inserts selfreflection in the reference to the Humber, as he was born close by and enjoyed his education in Hull, on the north bank. As for time the speaker muses that he might have loved her “ten years before the flood,” or the world’s beginning, and she could love him after “the conversion of the Jews,” an action predicted to occur at the end of the world. His “vegetable love,” an allusion to an erect penis, could continue to outgrow empires and move with slow luxury; Marvell’s wit remains prominent in the adoption of the vegetable metaphor. He could take “An hundred years” to praise her eyes and look upon her forehead and “Two hundred to adore each breast: / But thirty thousand to the rest.” He adopts the approach of the Petrarchan tradition in praising the woman’s body parts, reducing her to an object of admiration. Not only would he like to take this time, he tells her, “Lady you deserve this state.”
The fantasy dissolves with Marvell’s insertion of the transition term But in line 21, when the second part of his argument begins. He follows his warm fantasy with cold reality, declaring he always hears “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” a reference to Apollo’s crossing the heavens each day pulling the sun behind him and symbolizing the unstoppable passage of time. He attempts to manipulate his love’s determination not to give in to him by referencing what he believes that she most values: her beauty. In reality he reveals its value to him, noting that once she dies and is “in thy marble vault” her beauty will disappear, and she will no longer hear his “echoing song.” He follows this realistic thought with a harsh accompanying note, that at that point “worms shall try / That long preserved virginity.” The astute reader notes that he is setting her up to make a choice—give her virginity to him or allow it to become worm fodder—drawing on a classic logical fallacy for support, that only two choices exist. His lust will also become “ashes” at that point, a reference phrase in the 16th-century Book of Common Prayer (1559), “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Marvell injects IRONY into the speaker’s tone as the second section concludes, “The grave’s a fi ne and private place, / But none I think do there embrace.”
The final section adopts logical terminology, beginning, “Now, therefore,” as if the speaker has made a perfectly rational point on which he will base a final conclusion. The seductive language is well designed to beautiful effect. The speaker makes note of his wouldbe lover’s “youthful glow,” comparing its effect on her skin to that of “morning dew.” He supposes she possesses a “willing soul,” one that “transpires / At every pore with instant fires.” Because they both feel such passion, symbolized by fire, they should act on it, lacking the infinite time and space he earlier mentioned and facing sure death in the future. They should “like am’rous birds of prey” their own “Time devour,” a reference to the consuming nature of passion. Marvell ends with another reference to Apollo, concluding, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run.” They cannot stop time, but they use it in a way that will leave them victorious.
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Halli, Robert W., Jr. “The Persuasion of the Coy Mistress.” Philological Quarterly 80, no. 1 (winter 2001): 57–70.
Karon, Jeffrey W. “Cohesion as Logic: The Possible Worlds of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ ” Style 27, no. 1 (1993): 91–105.
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