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Poetry: To His Coy Mistress – Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) was an English metaphysical poet, associated with John Donne and George Herbert and friend to John Milton. He also was a member of British Parliament and grew up in the Church of England. He wrote his first poems in Latin and Greek while he was studying at Cambridge and his most famous poem is the love-song “To His Coy Mistress“.

Andrew Marvell’s style

Andrew Marvell wrote more stylised poetry in a contemporary neoclassical tradition. Including the “carpe diem” lyric tradition, which is the basis for his most famous work “To His Coy Mistress”. He used familiar forms and combined them with his own unique views about the larger questions of life and death. It’s technically accomplished, but also uses the vocabulary and syntax of the time to perfection, in his own witty lyrical voice. He emphasised the craftsmanship of expresion and the idiosyncratic freedom in alluding to classical and Biblical sources.

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.

Discussion

“To His Coy Mistress” is written from the point of view of a gentleman who is trying to persuade a woman to stop being coy and have sex with him, basically. In the first stanza, he describes how he would woo her if they had all the time in the world. But of course, they are limited by how short human life is – which is what he laments in the second stanza. And finally, in the third stanza, he urges her to requite his efforts and that they should enjoy each other while the still can.

For a full analysis of the poem, check this link.

This is indeed Marvell’s most famous and most celebrated poem. He starts with the traditional poetic conceit of the speaker persuading his/her lover through a “carpe diem” (or seize the day) philosophy. Marvell combined this with his typically vibrant imagery and rhyming couplets. We don’t know exactly when it was written, most likely in the 1650s, as it was published posthumously. “To His Coy Mistress” is considered one of the finest and most concise carpe diem arguments ever put in verse. It’s written in iambic tetrameter and rhyming couplets.

Happy reading,

Loes M.

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