Updated date:

Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "To His Coy Mistress"

Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" consists of twenty-three riming couplets. The thematic arrangement of the three sections resembles the two premises and proposition of a syllogism that might be paraphrased as follows: if we had unlimited time, it would be fine to wait before we engage in sexual intercourse, but time is limited, so we should have at it now.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Andrew Marvell was writing in the 17th century, and at that time the term "mistress" did not carry the connotation of an extramarital sex partner that it does in modern American English. "Mistress" merely meant "woman" or "lady." Etymologically, the titles Mrs, Miss, and Ms stem from that term.

The woman in this poem is a virgin, and the speaker is a cad who wants to seduce her, much like the rascal speaking in John Donne's "The Flea."

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 turn 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 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.

Reading of "To His Coy Mistress"

Commentary

In Andrew Marvell's carpe diem poem, "To His Coy Mistress," the speaker is attempting to seduce a young woman. The poem's clever idiocy rivals John Donne's "The Flea."

First Premise: If Time Were Limitless

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.

The speaker flings himself into his seduction drama, blurting out that both he and the young woman he wishes to defile will one day die, and therefore they should not wait to begin engaging in sexual intercourse. The randy speaker then offers bizarre suggestions as to what they could do if they had more time: she could go searching for rubies beside the Ganges, while he would amble along grumbling still in England by the Humber.

The speaker then asserts that the woman could continue to decline his propositions for ages and ages, for example, until the followers of Judaism take up that newfangled Christianity. His "love," meaning "lust," could continue to grow, "Vaster than empires, and more slow."

The speaker also could wait a "hundred years"; even "two hundred years" he could pass in admiring "each breast." He could devote even "thirty thousand" years to the rest of her person, if they had time, and he admits that she would be worth every minute of it.

Recommended for You

Second Premise: But Time Is Limited

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.

Regrettably, such copious amounts of time are not allotted to them. Surely as they are living, they will surely be dying, unable to participate in the ways of the flesh. He is so certain that he is such a smart fellow, and he knows what behavior is correct for himself and the object of his lust. The speaker then insults the woman's intelligence and common sense, labeling her sensible stance on the issue "quaint."

If he cannot take her virginity, then the "worms" will do so after she dies. Conveniently, the arrogant speaker omits any reference to the problems that would likely follow the indiscretion of such an assignation. He gleefully allows himself to be guided by his genitals, not his brain, and he has the audacity to ridicule her for using her mind.

Proposition: Thus, Now Is the Time

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.

For this speaker, driven by his nether region, his logic naturally results in sexual gratification. He envisions a future of fading beauty. He concludes that because of little time and the physical decaying of the body, they should not delay sexual experience. The speaker unfortunately foists his own degenerate state upon the woman, insisting that she wants it as much as he does! Ancient ultimatum!

The speaker envisions their sexual act will be like "am'rous birds of prey." He fantasizes their, "roll[ing] all [their] strength, and all / [Their] sweetness, up into one ball." Furthermore, he insists that they should, "tear [their] pleasures with rough strife." This speaker does not just want sex, but he also desires the act to be violent, as he suggests this additional perversion in his final effusion, metaphorically heralding the sun that they cannot but "stand still," so they "will make him run." The comic effect of a running sun, like the male ejaculate down the leg, renders the piece floating somewhere on the edge of pornography.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 18, 2016:

Thank you for responding, Anne! It is funny that poems like this one make it hard to believe that Marvell was most known in his day as a political satirist. We can thank T. S. Eliot for bringing Marvell's lyrical works to light.

Anne Harrison from Australia on April 18, 2016:

One of my favourite poems. It reads so effortlessly, belying the skill and effort in its creation. It seems a lot of effort was put into seduction in those days - not many 'morning after' poems are around!

Thanks for the hub

Related Articles