The 17th century poets, Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick, in their poems “To His Coy Mistress” and “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time” offer extraordinary insight into the feelings and emotions connected with love. With twenty-eight definitions for the word “love” in the dictionary and therefore with no surprise we find this broadly defined word contributing to a diverse array of poems, which can all claim to be centered around “love.”
Two such poems are, “To His Coy Mistress” and “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time” both of which are obviously dealing with the subject of love, despite being written thirty-three years apart they still share a commonality. Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick both use vivid figurative language and ardent rhyme devices in similar ways in their respective poems to communicate a common theme: that beyond the obvious amorous and passionate nature of love, love is ultimately ephemeral and therefore we must seize it and fully experience it, before love, true to its transient character, passes us by.
Both Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick use dramatic and vibrant figurative language not only to create visual effects that complement and enliven their shared theme but they also use it to convey abstract ideas and concepts that would have been very difficult or even impossible to express in literal terms, such as the transient spirit of love and necessity of seizing love while it lasts. Andrew Marvell in his “To His Coy Mistress” romantically describes a young man persuading his “coy lady” (2) to release herself to live in the present. Marvell brilliantly illustrates the temporary character of love as well as the need to live life to its fullest as shown in the three different stanzas, each overflowing with powerful and moving imagery.
In the 17th century England was just beginning its exploration and discovery of the exotic east, and as such we find Marvell evoking images of places such as mysterious “Indian Ganges” (5) as he carefully describes the great feelings of love apparent throughout the poem. Marvell continues by evoking images of the grand and growing British Empire by claiming that his, “love [would] grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow” (11-12). At a time where colonialism and empire building were like epidemics raging throughout Europe, such vivid imagery as evoked by Marvell would have allowed 17th century readers to easily understand the strength and enormity of the love depicted in his poem.
He also developed the idea of the importance time earlier in his poem but does not further it fully. Andrew Marvell similarly alluded to “the flood” (8) and “the conversion of the Jews” (10), which are two religious allusions taken from the Old and New Testaments, respectively. “The flood” (8) alludes to the story of Noah and the great flood which occurred around the time of Creation while “the conversion of the Jews” (10) according to the book of Revelations in the Bible, would occur near Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. Marvell was writing in a deeply religious time period and therefore such allusions would have been perfectly understood by 17th century readers to indicate the immensity and power of love. As he progresses in the second and third stanzas of his poem, Andrew Marvell begins to show how love is ultimately ephemeral and how it must be enjoyed because it is short-lived.
Marvell along these lines evokes powerful images of “beauty [that] shall no more be found” (25), the “grave” (21), “time devour[ing]” (39) the lovers and the “vast eternity” (24) of death to depict how love is not truly eternal and most do not have “two hundred years to adore” (15) each other. Marvell here is making a statement about how all of us (regardless of gender or involvement in relationships) should savor the pleasures of the present. For the poet, there are two kinds of attitudes toward the present: activities in the present are judged by their impact on the future, and there is thus no future state – all activities occur in the present and can only be enjoyed or evaluated by their impact at that moment.
Correspondingly, Robert Herrick in his poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” uses imagery to brilliantly illustrate his shared theme: he feels it is necessary to immerse oneself in love before love passes one by. In each of the four stanzas, Herrick uses a new image to give the impression of the time fleeting by and he highlights the need for us to ‘seize the love’ literally meaning ‘to strike iron when its hot’. Herrick establishes that “Old time is still a-flying” (2) and this is the overtone for the entire poem. In the first stanza, he compares the “flower that smiles today” (3) to the ones that “will be dying” (4) “tomorrow” (4) and this comparison creates a mold for all the imagery he uses that follows.
The “flower” (3) like love is initially good and beautiful but its life yet is ephemeral and short-lived. The same is true for “the lamp of heaven, the sun” (5) and “age” (9). The “sun”(5) is “glorious” (5) when it is rising but in the end its grace and power is momentary, as it eventually has to set. The same principle holds true with “age” (9), which is “best” (9) at “first” (9) but gets “worse” (11) as time drags on. These three images all contribute to a poetic restatement on Herrick’s part of that the ephemeral nature of things and the necessity for us to seize the opportunity while it lasts, as there will be no point ‘to cry over split milk.’
Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick similarly use rhyme devices in diverse ways to emphasize different facets of their poems while ultimately continuing to uphold a shared theme. Both of them both employ very regular rhyme schemes in “To His Coy Mistress” and “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time” for similar ends. Robert Herrick’s rhyme scheme in one of alternating lines (i.e. ABAB) and this rhyme scheme allows him to make rhyming lines complement each other. In the opening stanza, “flying” (2) rhymes with “dying” (4) and this rhyme highlights the points the poet is trying to make. The regular rhyme pattern forces the reader to become accustomed to it very easily and therefore we often anticipate the rhyming word and this allows Herrick to create a union between the rhyming sentences.
This is clearly observable in lines two and four: “old time is still a-flying” (2) and “tomorrow will be dying.” The union caused by rhyming allows Herrick to highlight a critical element of theme that time and love is not forever and that we should live fully in the present because tomorrow may never come. This union caused by rhyming is present throughout the poem and these unions supplement not only the overall theme but also the figurative language employed by Robert Herrick. In a like manner, Alexander Marvell also utilizes a very regular rhyme scheme where every two lines rhyme (i.e. AABB). This regular rhyme scheme is primarily used by Marvell to make “To His Coy Mistress” smooth and flowing. With such long stanzas, such as the twenty-line long first stanza, it was necessary for the poet to use a regular rhyme scheme to add continuity and regularity to his poem.
The continuity due to rhyming is particularly seen in lines twenty-three to twenty-eight, where Marvell abruptly breaks with his regular rhyme scheme. He rhymes “lie” (23) with “try” (27) and “eternity” (24) with “virginity” (28) and this sudden break forces the reader to pay closer attention and consequently Marvell introduces key ideas and concepts that relate directly with the theme. It is in these lines that Alexander Marvell shows how time is rapidly progressing in ways such as the fading of beauty and death. Marvell also highlights certain lines by employing slant rhyme, which is the case in lines six through ten. Here he attempts to rhyme “would” (6) with “flood” (7) and “refuse” (8) with “Jews” (9) and by doing so brings more focus onto this allusion. The use of rhyme is therefore clearly used by both Alexander Marvell and Robert Herrick to embellish their respective poems.
The Latin phrase “carpe diem” means, “to seize the day,” and this has been utilized very effectively as a rally to ask us to immerse ourselves in life before life passes us by. “To Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” by Robert Herrick and “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell are both poetic restatements of “carpe diem.” Both these poets emphasize the ephemeral character of love, which ultimately overshadows its amorous and passionate nature.
They accentuate through their shared theme the necessity for seizing the opportunity and experiencing the joys of love while it was possible. This theme, which was shared between two poets who were not contemporaries of each other, shows the importance of it especially in a time period where the average life span was so short. But Marvell and Herrick’s theme however has proved timeless, and thus continues to be applicable even today in the 21st century.