Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is a poem that explores the idea of love, and the moralities and perceptions associated with it. Following the theme of “Carpe Diem”, or ‘seize the moment’, the poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker is addressing his mistress, and attempting to seduce her.
The title itself is an early indication of the lines ‘To a Coy Mistress’ is going to take; the “To” immediately implies a direct address, where a man is addressing his “coy mistress”, while “coy” means shy, with connotations of sexual modesty. This gives rise to the possibility that the poem might follow the tradition of “Carpe Diem”, coming from the angle of seduction. The poet demonstrates a variety of techniques and opinions throughout the text to engage the reader’s interest, and it is how successful he has been in achieving this aim that I intend to investigate.
One particular aspect of the poem which is unusual in a love’ poem, is the very structured way in which the verses are ordered. At the beginning of each verse, the first line is an instant guide to which stage the speaker’s argument is entering. The first verse begins with the creation of a hypothetical situation, arguing that in such circumstance, the position adopted by the speaker’s mistress would be quite acceptable “Had we but…” Then in the next verse, the arguments against; “But”. Then to conclude the whole argument, “Now, therefore”. Considering that this a ‘love’ poem, or at least one in which sex and seduction are paramount, it is unusual that the poem follows such a strict structure – love is traditionally thought of as illogical, unexplainable – not something to be logically debated over, point by point.
Another way in which the poem follows a progressive pattern is how Marvell varies and develops the tone and moods created by the speaker in each verse. By using three different moods in the verses, the poet brings an emotional climax to the conclusion of the poem, as well as adding impact to his persuasion of his mistress. The first verse starts with a very relaxed, soothing tone, to draw his mistress into his argument. The second moves into a foreboding, fearful tone, to terrify or scare her, and is then followed by the simultaneous re-assurance and fierce determination of the conclusion. By building the tension during the argument, and varying the tone as well as the mood, the conclusion has more weight – so possibly more likely to achieve his aim? In addition to those points, with a monologue this structured, were it lacking mood changes, the poem would be singularly boring to read.
When I went on to study the verses in greater detail, I found that there were several points that attract the reader’s attention. In verse 1, the speaker in a light, and rather self-depreciating tone, imagines a hypothetical situation where his mistress’ reticence would be perfectly acceptable, “had we but world enough, and time” that he could do justice to her beauty and their feelings.
In terms of him having “world enough”, the poet uses geographical detail to emphasise the impracticalities of the ‘proper’ distance between them at the outset of the courtship, by saying he would then be bemoaning his love for her by the “Humber” – a river in the north of England – while his mistress would be receiving his love by the “Indian Ganges”. Opposite sides of the world as a ‘proper’ distance is clearly unworkable – especially as when the poem was written, a journey, and letters, would take months to arrive. This is emphasised by the slow, ponderous word choice and sentence structure used in this part of the verse, echoing his argument as to just how long things would take.
There is also the possible slant that the speaker is gently making fun of his mistress, and her ideals, by comparing her to the exotic romanticism of India, full of mysticism and strange beliefs, while he is the plain, unromantic Humber, in an area known for its industrialism and practical solutions. An indication that his ‘solution’ is more viable?
In terms of his love having “time” to develop, the poet employs some inventive – and slyly humorous – imagery to demonstrate the sheer scale of the time it would take. To show how natural, and unstoppable the growth of his love would be, he compares it to a “vegetable love”, and idea seen in those times as very positive, ponderous and implacable. In addition, he also refers to how long it would take for their love to fully flourish; “till the conversion of the Jews” – perhaps a reference to how long it could be before all Jews were converted to the Christian Faith – and partners it with “Ten years before the Flood”, which could be a reference, with the capital “F”, to when the world was almost destroyed, as in the story of Noah. The partnering of that, with “till the conversion of the Jews” – Armageddon? The second Coming of Christ? Either way, a time scale spanning from near the beginning of the world as we know it to the end. The more conventional evidence of the increasing time spans is the use of numbers; “10…100…200…30,000…an age”. That’s a pretty slow development, either way.
One feature with I particularly enjoyed about verse 1 was the speaker’s subtle and self-depreciating sense of humour, as he clearly realises the absurdity of these hypothetical situations; many would argue that “the conversion of the Jews” is an event which will never occur, and although I’m sure a “vegetable love” is a fine sentiment, comparing one’s mistress to, say, a lovely big marrow is not the most flattering of images…
However, this tone changes in the last two lines of the verse; after all, the speaker doesn’t want his mistress to think that he is mocking their love – only its situation.
“For, lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.”
The tone in those last two lines is much more serious, ‘loving’; the contrast with the previous flamboyant, self-depreciating tone highlights how deeply the speaker really feels about his love, with this modulation in tone. More realistic, more sincere in what he is saying.
Verse 2 was equally interesting, in that from the start of the verse, the poet indicates a dramatic contrast in mood from the previous verse; the first word is “But”, immediately signalling that this stage in the argument is going to contrast with the previous, and in addition to that, the word choice of the first few lines is full of short, quick syllables, “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”. This change in mood is confirmed in the second line, by the fact that normally, most poems of this time would have had 10 syllables per line, while “To His Coy Mistress” has 8 per line. Yet this particular line holds 10 syllables when pronounced properly – so in order to preserve the rhythm scheme, the reader must compress the words “chariot” and “hurrying”, and “winged” is read with 2 syllables.
This compression, the rushing of the line, echoes the point made in the verse; that time – a reference to the myth that the sun was pulled by Apollo’s chariot, hence the passing of time – waits for nobody. The shortening of the line, at the expense of the pronunciation, illustrates how ineluctable, and impossible to stop, time is – so, by the speaker’s argument, they should make the most of it. Another method which the speaker uses to bring out the swiftness of the passing of time, and how quickly it goes, is that verse 2 is the shortest in the poem, partially due to the afore mentioned compression, and is faster, as well as shorter; time compressed.
It is inevitable that with the passing of time, people grow older, and eventually die. Having impressed upon his mistress just how rapidly age and death come to all, the speaker now uses highly emotive language to bring out his vision – or version – of what death, and the events that follow after it. He uses highly emotive language to bring out the barrenness of death, by comparing it to “deserts of vast eternity” – nothing growing, nothing living, was how deserts were seen. Death, as a barren, endless expanse, forever stretching onwards.
There are even possible overtones of the Egyptian belief that after death the spirits must walk through a desert, and overcome dangers and the prospect of eternal damnation, to find their way to the heavens – the desert of the lost? The idea of death as a cold, empty kind of half-existence is brought out by references to “marble vault”, cold, bare and empty, save for slowly crumbling bones, nothing to interrupt a sound as it reverberates, “echoing”, around the chamber; a shell. Almost a claustrophobic feel, the idea of being trapped inside a slab of marble, with only fading echoes…
The speaker now introduces more of his own personal opinions as to the ultimate pointlessness of human desires and ideals by some truly horrible images; the references to “worms” crawling through his mistress’ corpse, who “try that long preserved virginity”. He is once again raising the point that once she is dead, then worms will crawl through her decomposing body, devouring her remains without compunction, making homes in her dry bones. If worms are eventually going to penetrate her much-hoarded virginity, then the speaker is ‘proving’ that it is a pointless effort. In time, “beauty shall no more be found” and turn “to ashes all my lust” – everything fades, so make the most of the moment. All her “quaint honour turn to dust” – lost with her life. Pointless, all of it; the idea that as soon as you’re dead, nothing matters. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Valueless.
This concept, and the terrifying mood and images which the speaker has created have clearly been conjured for a specific reason; to try and frighten his mistress out of her present mindset, shocking her into considering his suggestion. Even that she might turn to him in terror? Yet he only wants to frighten, not offend; he never openly insults her course of action, calls her hour “quaint” rather than pointless, as he clearly considers it.
As in previous verses, Marvell changes the tone at the end of the verse;
“The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”
These lines bring the verse to a close, but the much more subdued tone and mood contrasts with the purely gothic horror formerly created. A much quieter conclusion than the imagery previously employed. The tone is definitely ironic, with the understated litotes of “I think”, and its clever use of parenthesis, ending on a less terrifying note – after all, the speaker wants to prepare his mistress for the conclusion to his argument, that she should not be “coy”, rather than scare her off completely.
The last verse is a compelling conclusion to the speaker’s ‘argument’ with his mistress. While talking about his visions of passing time, the grave, and death, the speaker returns to the present, which is first indicated by the word “Now”, that he is no longer talking about his hypothetical situations or visions. In addition to this, he also indicated that he is going to draw a conclusion from this argument, with “therefore”. He then goes on to demonstrate the sheer life and vitality of himself and his mistress, with his word choice and the imagery he uses; her skin’s “youthful hue” like “morning dew” – the imagery of a rosy, healthy complexion, and the connotations of clarity, purity and innocence that go with “morning dew”, as well as morning holding connotations of new life, the sun being ‘born again’ – new promise.
“Every pore with instant fires” also gives the impression of life – fiery, passionate; definitely alive. Fire has always been closely connected with living, change – vitality.
The speaker makes it clear that he feels they should make use of this vitality while they can, and use this “time of youth” to “sport us while we may”, rather than to remain in the thrall of time, and “languish in his slow-chapt power”. The two options as to how the speaker believes life can be led; active, or passive. Carpe Diem – the course he wants to follow. The imagery the speaker uses to bring this out is full of positive connotations for the former, with comparisons to “amorous birds of prey”, while the latter option holds overtones of “time” devouring them with “slow-chapt power”, rather than them devouring time.
However, it is in the last section of the poem that Marvell really uses word choice and imagery to bring out the seductiveness of responding to the pleasures of the flesh, as opposed to following the rules and regulations set down by others – and ones’ conscience. The imagery of “Roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball” is fairly obviously bawdy, are the physical connotations of “roll”. With “Tear our pleasures with rough strife Through the iron gates of life” comes the idea of rough sex, sweet and sour, pleasure/ pain. “Iron gates” could refer to either more physical ‘barriers’ being broken, or the barriers of morality and tradition. All the verbs here are active, “roll…tear”, perhaps to try and create the idea of a frenzy of pleasure, “strength…sweetness”.
In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker reaches the conclusion of his reasoning – Carpe Diem. He and his mistress cannot stop time, but they can still make the most of it. “We may not make our Sun stand still, yet we will make him run”. All the previous points and examples have led to the same conclusion; live life while you can. In a compressed aphorism he highlights the conclusion he has drawn from his reasoning – and one he hopes will convince his mistress into agreeing with him ; after all, none can argue that the “sun” will not “stand still”, and the sun was how time was originally measured. However, though no one might be able to halt it, it is still possible to “make him run”. Again, the theme of Carpe Diem is brought up – seize the moment.
To conclude, “To His Coy Mistress” is a poem that contains many techniques and opinions throughout the text, which succeed in engaging the reader’s interest, both in it and its theme. The whole concept of rationalising love, as something to be logically argued out, is highly unusual, especially in the type of seduction poem which “To His Coy Mistress” is upon first glance. The repeated use of imagery to persuade – or manipulate – the speaker’s mistress into following his preferred course of action is extremely skilful and effective in prompting reactions in the reader. Marvell’s choice of highly emotive language makes this poem far more attention grabbing, especially in conjunction with the varying moods and tones of the verses to build tension.
However, there are several points on which I disagree with the poem, even to the point of finding it offensive. Not because of the imagery used, and only to a lesser degree the idea that there might, just possibly, be something to be said for morals, and even – dare I say it – values. What I find personally irritating is how one-sided and hypocritical the speaker’s arguments are. Throughout the poem, the speaker argues that everyone should take control of their life, rather than simply being led along by it; to make the most of it.
Yet he is then using that self same argument to try and persuade and manipulate his mistress into letting her be led along by him, and his opinions, rather than ‘life’. Slight tending towards the hypocritical there – not to mention the realism, or not of the situation, in which the woman is portrayed as having easily changeable opinions, strongly influenced by those around her. And if the speaker or poet meant the idea of ‘Carpe Diem’ to be held in wider significance than the situation in the poem, then why not other factors too?
There is also the secondary issue that I believe that while everyone has the right to free speech and their own opinion – so kind of me to allow everyone that, I know – I do not like it when people abuse that gift to force their opinions onto others, rather than trying to influence them. Yes, I know that it is a dangerously thin line between logically setting out an argument – as indeed the speaker did in the poem – and actively manipulating emotions to make people more susceptible to having opinions thrust onto them. But there is still a difference, in my opinion.
I am aware that when people agree with an opinion, then they are more likely to appreciate what is being said by the speaker, and I personally do not fully believe in what the speaker in “To His Coy Mistress” was saying, so am probably less likely to empathise with the poem. I still think it a very skilful piece of writing, and partially successful in covering the concepts and ideals of love – albeit from a very one sided perspective. Either way, it combines in a poem which certainly covers the concept of ‘Carpe Diem from the perspective of love, and has the ability to capture the reader’s interest – if only because they disagree with what is being said.