Analysis of Andrew Marvell's poem 'To His Coy Mistress'

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To His Coy Mistress - Andrew Marvell

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 winged 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 preserv'd 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 am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Mistress analysis - David W.

Andrew Marvell's poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (hereafter I shall refer to the poem as ‘Mistress’) is a beautifully provocative poem. ‘Mistress’ encompasses many literary techniques including tone, imagery, alliteration, metaphor, irony, enjambment and similes. It is written in iambic tetrameter as a three part proposition to his mistress, and Marvell employs alternative poetic styles (as mentioned previously) to enhance each of the three arguments in the poem. In essence, ‘Mistress’ examines the assertion that after death, morality is of no value. Marvell accentuates the triviality of his mistress being vain during her lifetime, emphasizing that she must do away with all trepidation when it comes to temptation. Like many metaphysical poets of the time Marvell investigates the popular Roman term coined by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (better known as Horace) “carpe diem quam minium credo la postero” (enjoy the present and trust as little as possible to the future ). By seizing the day, she can avoid the regrets of not having taken part in the more adventurous side of life. For people who adhere to the mundane and avoid the more adventurous experiences are doing so at their own detriment especially considering their already brief time here on earth. It is of interest that Marvell also blends into this poem a political/social commentary about King Charles II and it is this that rationalises why this was not published in his lifetime.

The three parts to ‘Mistress’ can be identified with the change of tone and pace in the poem. For example ‘Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.” in these two opening lines, Marvell uses punctuation in order to slow down the pace of the poem without interfering with the constant iambic tetrameter throughout the poem. In doing this it reflects the message that time is of no importance. This is followed by the repeated use of open vowel sounds ‘would’ ‘which’ ‘way’ and ‘our’ in the next two lines to make the reader sound wistful as if they are sighing ‘We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day’. To further woo and enchant his audience, alliteration is also used to great effect, in line 1 ‘we’ and ‘world’, in line 2 ‘coyness’ and ‘crime’, in Line 3 ‘we would’ and ‘which way’ and finally in line 4 ‘long love’s’.

In the next 16 lines, it can be sensed the reader has upon his lips a slow smirk forming that coincides with the sly tone of the first argument. Marvell conjures up ethereal, tantalizingly beautiful images to flatter his mistress with an insincere exaggeration of her beauty and virtue. The imagery is insincere because it travels the full, albeit completely unrealistic, gamut of time and space. The first example of this is with ‘Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Should’st rubies find’ where he uses the metaphor relating the magically distant, recently discovered unspoilt Ganges’ river to the equally uncharted waters of his mistress’ sexuality. The image of his mistress searching for rubies set in stark contrast of his whereabouts ‘I by the tide Of Humber would complain’ whilst being a romantic image also reinforces her virginity.

With lines 7-8‘I would Love you ten years before the flood’ refers to Genesis 6-9 and the image of the incredibly pious Noah et al in his ark after forty days and forty nights of rain; (This is in itself an ironic image as God actually tells Noah and his three sons to engage in sexual intercourse. ) in conjunction with lines 9-10 ‘And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews’ sets up the period of time of which his mistress may take to consider his proposition. Obviously this is an impossibly infinite time frame which makes it a both an idealistic thought and romantic gesture. Lines 11-12 ‘My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires, and more slow’ is a magnificent image not from the phallic symbol it creates but of the fact that vegetables, unlike fruits, are not created in the reproductive area of the plant. That is to say that fruits such as apples are what the flower becomes after pollination, whereas vegetables for example carrots are the roots, asparagus the stems and lettuce the leaves of the plant. Despite this it is still an ironic image as it is written in the conditional tense (if they had all the time in the world, which he knows they do not) and continuing with the carrot metaphor, the carrot (vegetable love) grows out of sight (subconsciously) whereas you will see in the next paragraph his lust grows quickly and consciously.

So far, this first section sounds romantic; yet the next few lines really push the point home. ‘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 for every part, And the last age should you show your heart’ here Marvell again shows scant disregard to the concept of time using increasing numbers to express his ever growing love for his mistress. However it is the detail that he spends 4 times the time on each of her breasts rather than her eyes to prove that it is not his love for her that is growing but in fact his cod piece! Yet the piece-de-resistance comes with the use of enjambment (lines 12-18) where the reader becomes breathless magnifying the readers’ completely enamoured state. The final couplet in part 1 ‘For, lady, you deserve this state, Nor would I love at lower rate’ is a lovely way to finish off the first argument. Marvell again uses punctuation to slow down the speech, and alliteration (‘love’ and ‘lower’) to emphasise his point. To smooth the transition into his second argument his use of the irony between line 1 ‘Had we but…and time’ and 19 ‘you deserve this state’, is a masterstroke, being that as she is mortal she cannot achieve that state. I would be remiss if I did not point out the snide remark he makes (line 20) about he being a better lover than a younger man, which to me is just gorgeous.

In the second part of his argument, the imagery and tone change dramatically. Gone are the fanciful ethereal images of far off exotic countries and infinite time, instead we have the honest and sobering images of mortality and contemporary life. Lines 21-22 the first of the second argument ‘But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ we can identify the shift in tone not only by the prepositional conjugate ‘But’ yet through the change in speed that the poem is read. The imagery of Apollo and his chariot is especially apt for numerous reasons. Apollo, was not only conceived not by his father Zeus’ wife Hera, but by Leto an inferior class of divinity or nymph (or in literary terms a young and beautiful woman) but also had a weakness for them (not to mention many conquests, but no marriages ) similar to that of the reader of the poem. It is also well known from Greek mythology that Apollo with the aid of four horses drew the sun across the sky. ‘And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity’ continues with the time theme; however, now it is far more sincere and melancholic. It is this abrupt change of imagery and metaphors which the writer uses to confront and confuse his audience in order to persuade her into submitting to him. With this craftily applied offering of honest and distinguishable images, it lends credence to the first part of the poem where the imagery was far more insincere and capricious.

‘Mistress’ continues with the dark imagery of impending death with ‘Thy beauty shall no more be found; Nor in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing Song’ pointing out that her beauty will only last for a short time, and that she will be a long time dead. He goes further to say that once she is dead and in her tomb that she will never again be able to hear how much he loves her. Marvell uses another phallic metaphor in lines 27-28 with ‘then Worms shall try That long preserv’d Virginity’. The poem continues with references to the Genesis with the following lines ‘And your quaint Honour turn to dust; And in ashes all my Lust.’ The final couplet of the second part summarises his argument ‘The Grave’s a fine and private place, But none I think do there embrace’ however, despite its morbid feel, there is a deliberate humorous inflection so as not to create a sombre mood, which would be counterproductive to his cause. The use of capitalised nouns in ‘Song’ ‘Worms,’ ‘Virginity,’ ‘Honour,’ ‘Lust’ and ‘Grave’s’ further stresses the iambic meter to press the importance of the imagery he is creating.

The conclusion to the argument is heralded by the first use of similes in the poem with ‘Now therefore, while the youthful hew Sits on thy skin like morning dew,’ Marvell uses this turn of phrase for two reasons. Firstly it is to act as a catalyst to shake off the doom and gloom of the previous argument and secondly it acts as a metaphor for the coming of spring after his mistress’ cold wintry, dare I say frigid behaviour. ‘And while thy willing Soul transpires At every pore with instant Fires’ uses the delicious metaphor of not literal flames but the ardent heat of desire he insists she feels for him; the use of many fires as opposed to the singular entrenches in us his carnal desire. In this line the issue of time is revisited with ‘instant’ rather than constant used to call attention to its effect on transience within the movement of the poem. The speed changes to an increased tempo so much so that it could be mistaken for a ballad or a joyous hymn. Once more the reader attempts to dazzle and confuse his audience in order to awaken her hot blooded desire with the following line, ‘Now let us sport us while we may’ the use of single syllable words and lack of punctuation leaves the reader out of breath in preparation for the second simile and its strong lusty imagery ‘And now, like am’rous birds of prey’. Marvell even finds time to throw in some internal rhyme with the line ‘Rather at once our Time devour, Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.’ What is more the repetition of this open vowel sound throughout the conclusion continues to add to the sensual connotations of the argument. For any readers still in doubt of the reference to Apollo earlier in the poem the next few lines prove the point effortlessly ‘Let us roll all our Strength, and all Our sweetness, up into one Ball’ not only is this a metaphor to the courtship of eagles but also to the ritual of young priests of the island of Leukas, Greece, to qualify for the service at the temple of Apollo .

The final four lines make one last final plea for the mistress to surrender herself to him ‘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.’ The most interesting part of the final couplet is the use of the imagery of the Sun, for apart from its reference to Apollo and time it was also used in place of the word Son. The Son in this case Marvell attributes to Charles II, the son of the assassinated King Charles I, who fled to France for nine years after his defeat in the Battle of Worchester . This can be confirmed as Marvell’s first poems written whilst still at Cambridge celebrated the birth of Charles I; although Marvell later became sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause where he first became acquainted with Oliver Cromwell. This also explains the use of the line ‘Till the conversion of the Jews’ as Cromwell (the third person to sign Charles I death warrant) was responsible for trying to encourage the Jews to return to England in 1657 (after they had been banished by Edward I for 350 years) to help rebuild the economy after the civil wars decimated the country .

‘Mistress’ is a wonderfully lyrical poem written in the first person, despite the third person inference in the title. It uses Petrarchan conventions in the greatly exaggerated metaphors to woo his mistress. Marvell is a highly gifted poet who uses his verbal prowess to attempt to trick and dominate his mistress into sleeping with him. It almost appears as he is showing off, to prove that he can win over both her heart and her head (and other metaphysical poets as well) in a consummate display of his rhetorical mastery. All credit must go to a man that influences one of history’s greatest poets in T S Eliot. Eliot makes numerous allusions to this poem in his poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and in ‘The Waste Land.’ For example in ‘Love Song’ the imagery of time is used repetitiously when he writes ‘There will be time, there will be time,’ ‘Time for you and time for me’ and ‘And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”’ The phrase used in the second argument in ‘Mistress’ ‘But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ is attributed by Eliot to his line(196) from ‘The Fire Sermon’ in ‘Waste Land’ with the nearly identical ‘But at my back from time to time I hear The sound of horns and motors.'

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