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Analysis of Poem "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell

Updated on September 29, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell | Source

Andrew Marvell and To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress is Andrew Marvell's best known poem. It focuses on the lustful desires of a man attempting to entice a female virgin, the mistress, into sexual intimacy.

The poem is a tour de force, and has come to be known as a seduction poem or carpe diem (seize or pluck the day) poem. Wit, allusion and metaphor are all employed in what is a syllogism - a logical argument - that can be summed up in a short phrase: Life is too short, let's get it on before you and I decay.

It was first published in 1681, in Miscellaneous Poems, three years after the death of the author.

Marvell is known today as one of the metaphysical poets (alongside such names as John Donne, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Richard Crashaw) because he wrote on subjects such as man's place in the universe, existence, love and religion.

To His Coy Mistress is a clever, well structured poem, a dramatic monologue in effect, the speaker progressing logically through the stages of persuasion in an effort to turn the lady's head and heart.

He wants to deflower her before it's too late. Basically his argument goes like this:

  • If they had all the time in the world at their disposal then everything would be fine and he needn't have to press her for a sexual liason. But, hey, has she noted that there's no time to lose?
  • Before them is eternity, a vast desert where they'll both turn to dust and ashes in the grave. Beauty will die. Not a very pleasant prospect. Lust turns to disgust. And Time flies.
  • Let's devour time before it devours us. The instinct drives birds of prey, why not us; let's strike while the iron's hot, create a ball of passion and take on the sun.

As you can see, the argument builds up through the three sections of the poem, starting off with the speaker's assertion that the lady's coyness (shyness, modesty) wouldn't be deemed a moral crime if they had all the world in which to spend time together.

There then follows a series of potential scenarios laid out by the speaker to illustrate exactly what he means. There is a relaxed tone to these lines, spiced with hyperbole and allusion.

She, being of Indian descent perhaps, could go walking by the river Ganges in search of rubies (in legend the river originates from a huge jujube tree near a hermitage where stands some stairs made of rubies and corals).

Likewise, he, being from Hull in East Yorkshire, England, could go walking by the tidal river Humber. Only he wouldn't be looking for precious stones, he'd be complaining - perhaps unhappy with the distance between him and his lady.

And there would also be time, thousands of years, for him to admire her physical beauty, her eyes, her breasts and so on.

Keeping regular rhyme and rhythm throughout, the poem culminates in what many think is an alchemical climax of sorts, a coming together of male and female elements, with the emphasis on a passionate fusion, strong enough to affect even the sun.

  • In conclusion, To His Coy Mistress explores the realm of human mortality, approaching the seriousness of this finite reality with humour, logic and ironic reflection. Why let time get the upperhand when being pro-active could bring fulfilment?

To His Coy Mistress

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.

An 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.

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 turns to dust;

And into ashes all my lust.

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning glew,

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 chapt power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness up into one ball:

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Thorough the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Analysis of To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress has been rightly lauded as a small masterpiece of a poem, primarily because it packs so much into a relatively small space. It manages to carry along on simple rhyming couplets the complex passions of a male speaker, hungry for sexual liason with a lady, before all devouring time swallows them up.

Lines 1 - 20

The argument begins with an appeal to the coy mistress based on the idea that, if time and space were limitless, they could spend their days in leisure, she by the exotic Ganges river for instance, he by the ebb and flow of the Humber.

Sex needn't be a priority in this fantasy world. The speaker's ironic tone even allows for his love of the lady a decade before the old testament flood, and she could say no to his advances up to the time when the Jews convert to Christianity - which would never ever happen of course.

  • This tongue-in-cheek allusion to religious notions of the end of the world, plus the underlying urges for physical intimacy, have been too much for certain Christian groups and others in more modern times. They would like the poem to be banned from being taught in school, claiming that it would negatively influence their children and that it condones predatory male behaviour.

Years he would spend growing his love, like a vegetable grows slowly, rooted and strong, in the earth. And he could bide his time admiring her physical beauty - her eyes, forehead, breasts and other parts.

This imaginary scenario is a clever and slightly ludicrous set up. He is clearly in awe of her body and totally wants her heart but because she refuses to comply he introduces this idea of a timeless, boundless love. Time becomes a metaphor for love but is little more than a limitless resource.

Lines 21 - 32

But all of the previous means nothing because the reality is that the clock is ticking louder and louder. Time is flying. And then one day you find ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. Don't look over your shoulder. Don't look ahead either because there is a vast desert - eternity.

The speaker's tone starts to alter, becoming more serious. The future isn't that bright - her beauty will be lost in the sands of time - even worse, when she's dead and buried only the worms will experience what he presently longs for. What a challenging image.

And there are some who think quaint honour is an obscure reference to the female private parts (quaint was used as a noun in pre-Elizabethan times). He too will perish, consumed by his own passion, nothing but a pile of ash.

The last couplet of this section is perhaps the most quoted and puts a seal on the message: Let's make love while we're still alive.

Lines 33 - 46

The final part of this poem concentrates on the rational summing up of what's gone before. Note the first two words: Now therefore,..it's as if the speaker is saying, Look I've given you two quite valid reasons for you to succumb, consequently this final effort will make you see sense.

Never has an adverb carried so much weight.

And the speaker has clearly thrown out the fantasies and wishes of the previous scenes. Gone are space and time and death, in their place is the all-consuming present. Just look at the use of the word now (3 times in lines 33-38), suggesting that the speaker cannot wait a second longer for his postponed fulfilment.

The emphasis is on the physical - skin, sport, roll and tear - the language being tinged with aggression and forceful energy.

  • Line 34 is controversial as many later versions change the word glew for dew whereas in the original it is definitely glew. So the poet used this word to further the image of youthfulness, as line 33 imparts. The word glew, now archaic, could be the old fashioned word for today's glue but this wouldn't make sense in the context of the couplet: Sits on thy skin like morning glue,; what makes better sense is to look for variants of either glow or glee - we still say the skin glows but do not often say the skin is happy. Her skin has a morning glow.
  • As the lines progress the intensity increases, the passion starts to burn, and when the images of two birds of prey emerge, devouring time (instead of the other way round) the reader is surely taken beyond mere pleasures of the flesh.

Some think the poet is using the symbols of alchemy to express the deep lying sexual chemistry implied in the second unusual image, that of a ball of sweetness to signify the union of male and female.

The iron gates could well be the barrier, the threshold, through which the speaker wishes to emerge. He sets the imperative. If they come together then who knows what will happen? Common sense and the logic of time will no longer dictate their lives.

To His Coy Mistress - Influences

Mortality and desire were popular themes with poets in the 17th century. Love, sex and the need for offspring were all top priorities and with the life span much shorter than it is in modern times, the need to act NOW before time ran out was seen as vital.

One clear influence on Marvell was William Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis. Lines 95-96:

O pity, 'gan she cry, flint-hearted boy,

Tis but a kiss I beg, why art thou coy?

Further Analysis - Rhythm

Metre (Meter in USA)

This poem has a dominant 8 syllable, four beat rhythm to the majority of lines - iambic tetrameter - but there are lines that deviate from this familiar, steady constant.

  • First, the iambic tetrameter, for example, line 2 :

This coyness, lady, were no crime. (regular da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM)

  • Then there is the three stressed ending to line 4:

To walk, and pass our long Love's day. (spondee at the end DUM-DUM)

  • And the altered beat of lines 1 and 3:

Had we but world enough, and time (first foot is a trochee DUM-da)

We would sit down and think which way

And there are varied beats in lines 21/22 and 23/24.

These varied beats in certain lines tend to alter the pace and emphasis, and together with a mix of punctuation, colons, semi-colons, commas and full stops, not forgetting enjambment and repetition, makes the syntax particularly suitable for conveying a sense of momentum and familiarity.

More Analysis of To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress is a 46 line single stanza, split into three sections. Some modern versions available online show 3 distinct stanzas but the original is indeed one stanza with indented lines at 21 and 33.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyming couplets are mostly full end rhyme, aabbccdd and so on, which shows a tight knit relationship. Only lines 23/24 and 27/28 are imperfect - with slant rhyme, lie/eternity and try/virginity.

Alliteration

There are several examples: we would, long Love's, An age at, love at lower, while thy willing, Thus, though, Stand still, we will. Alliteration brings texture and altered phonics to the line and challenges the reader.

Questions To Ask - To His Coy Mistress

1. Is it right for a man to demand sexual pleasure from a woman?

2. Should this poem be banned from classrooms?

3. What about a feminist perspective on this poem?

4. The fact that this poem might be a satire makes it ok to study?

5. Which is more important, love or lust, and how do we balance the two?

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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