The poem was written in the seventeenth century, by Andrew Marvell, to his mistress. It was intended to persuade her to have sex with him. It uses a formal style, and is phrased elaborately. Three sections make up this piece, and I will analyse them one by one before turning to the overall impression. It is a very personal poem, addressed to one person only – this is the impression i get from reading it.
The first section is the thesis. He says he loves her, loves her truly, will worship her forever if needs be and if they were as immortal as their love there would be no problem:-
‘Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime.’ This statement tells her that her shyness is at fault. Implied is the sense that they are stuck in their own small worlds, with a short life ahead of them. The suggestion of an enclosed world, although it is never made obvious, becomes important later. Her ‘crime’ of being coy places him as the victim, the plaintiff, and as such gives her a sense of guilt.
He says if they lived forever then they could wander the world, explore it, and explore each other – they would have so much time it wouldn’t matter how reluctant she was.
‘Thou, by the Indian Ganges’ side, Should’st rubies find: I by the tide of humber would complain.’ The mention of exotic places, especially the Ganges, a holy place to Hindus and very beautiful, suggests a paradise surrounding her. She finds rubies, a valuable and attractive gemstone – but she simply acquires them through serendipity. Perhaps he is saying that this is what she deserves, an Indian nirvana with riches thrown at her feet. In contrast to these warm foreign places, he is by the side of the Humber, grey and cold, and complaining. He is left there, or chooses to go there, while she is elsewhere – but he would be happy to do this if they could have all the time and the world.
Then he uses historical references from the Bible to refer to the phrase about having ‘time enough’. This emphasizes the holy significance of the last place mentioned. Interestingly, here he says that she could refuse his advances forever. Marvell says his love for his mistress would grow and develop:
‘My vegetable love should grow, vaster than empires, and more slow.’ He appears to be promising to take things slowly, and build up to something magnificent and world-conquering. The vegetable metaphor seems to be an attempt at being honest, and not using flowery phrases. Plants are also very simple, and symbols of nature, so possibly he telling her his love is like this, pure and nothing she should shy away from.
Next he says he would devote his life to worshipping her. He would spend a centruy worshipping her eyes, two on each breast, but after mentioning these carnal features he says ‘but thirty thousand [years] to the rest’. Her body is not all he wants her for, ‘the last age should show your heart’, because this is the part of her he loves most. He finishes this verse with a couplet saying that
‘Lady, you deserve this state; Nor would I love at lower rate.’ Having mentioned all these things he would do if he had time, he says he will love her this way, as she deserves it. Hoever, there is a but.
The next verse provides the antithesis. He cannot do all this, because he will die. He hears ‘Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ and they are only getting older. Every age he spends worshipping her she only gets older, and soon
‘Thy beauty will no more be found’, and he will not be able to pay homage to her. The eternity that lies in front of them is a desert, barren and arid, with none of the earthly pleasures they should or could be enjoying now.
He uses language cleverly, with assonance and alliteration to emphasize his point. When they are dead he cannot sing to her, and she will not hear his entreaties.
‘Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound my echoing song’ This repetition of syllables and sounds gives an impression of a lovesong sounding hollow in a tomb.
Death levels everything. All her reasons for staying chaste and virginial now crumble into nothing when seen from the perspective of eternity. No matter how hard she tries to stay pure, the worms will eat her; after her mind is gone, what price her ‘quaint honour’? He uses the phrase:
‘And your quaint honour turn to dust, and into ashes all my lust’, recalling the funeral ceremony ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. He does not assault these virtues, but rather says that whatever they mean to her now, they will mean nothing when she is forgotten. He finishes by saying that :
‘The grave is a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.’ He does not fear death, it is a ‘fine place’, apparently, but it must be accepted and it is futile to suggest things such as he did in the verse before, because there is only a short lifetime, and nothing afterwards.
This strong antithesis, that life is short and love must finish with the end of life, seems to be impossible to reconcile with the thesis that he loves her so much one lifetime is not sufficient. His synthesis is to cram the depth of feeling in the first verse into the short time in the second. This is described in the third verse.
Language in this piece is emotive, even more so in comparison with the morbid images of the previous paragraph. He suggests :-
‘Now, therefore, while the youthful hue sits on thy skin like morning dew’. I see in this sentence several links to them being young, and having a lot of time in front of them – the obvious mention of her youth, the use of morning dew, because they are in the morning of their lives, and dew is fresh and sparkling – all qualities associated with being young and free. While she is inexperienced, she is also passionate –
‘thy willing soul transpires at every pore with instant fires’- she exudes heat and passion, and her soul is willing. He suggests that if they both want this, if he is lustful and she is burning with desire, they should have fun while they may.
Their identities are linked together in this paragraph, he uses the words we and us where previous he had used thou and I. He repeats the word now, and uses the present tense.
‘And now, like amorous birds of prey, rather at once our time devour,’ Birds of prey are strong, cruel, but sleek, beautiful and fast. They are also killing machines, and would devour time, rip it apart, and consume it totally. He suggests it is better that they use time, slice it up and make the most of every day, than let Time keep a grip on them. Time is personified as someone they have to escape from, which makes the threat and pressure more real than if it was simply an abstraction. But how to do this?
Here he gets to the point of the whole poem. They should:
‘Roll all their strength, and all their sweetness up into one ball: And tear their pleasures with rough strife, through the iron gates of life.’ The rolling up of their sweetness and strength refers to the unifying sexual act, and the tenderness and energy therein – joined together like this, with these qualities, they can smash their way through troubles. In the end they can burst through the gates of life, having enjoyed their limited time to the full.
‘Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, we can make him run.’ Although they cannot stop time, they can make the time fly by in a daze of love. This can be summed up in the latin phrase ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day.
A lot of time has obviously been spent on this. The flattery at the beginning and end would make the woman appreciate it and look more kindly on him, even if the argument did not convince her. I think the way that to begin with he finds there isn’t enough time, and later he wants the time to fly by, is inconsistent and lessens the impression. He plays on a common human fear of death that only the most devout can overcome – although a religious theme running through this perhaps implies the recipient is religious herself, in which case this would have to be a masterpiece of rhetoric to convince her to have sex before marriage. If she was wavering on whether to have sex with him, I think this might convince her – if she was simply shy or too modest. If she had her own reasons, these complicated arguments might as well be ignored.