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Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Andrew Marvell

Source

Commentary

Andrew Marvell's carpe diem poem, "To His Coy Mistress," features a ludicrous attempt to seduce a young woman. The poem's clever idiocy rivals John Donne's "The Flea."

Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" consists of twenty-three couplets. The thematic arrangement of the three sections resembles the two premises and proposition of a syllogism: 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.

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

First Premise: "Had we but world enough, and time"
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 says that she could continue to decline his propositions for ages and ages, for example, "Till the conversion of the Jews." His "love," that is, 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.

Second Premise: "But at my back I always hear"
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 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: "Now therefore, while the youthful hue"
For this speaker, driven by his nether region, the logic lies in sexual gratification only. He envisions a future of fading beauty. He concludes that because of little time and physical decaying of the body, they should not delay sexual experience.

The speaker unfortunately foists his own degenerate state on the woman, insisting that she wants it as much as he does!

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: "though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run."

Reading of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    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 profile image

    Anne Harrison 

    2 years ago from Australia

    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

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