Essay: To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: January 13, 2020
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  • To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
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Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is much more than the speaker’s sensuous declaration of love, lust and passion for his mistress. It is a clever play of metaphors, allusions, diction and imagery that summarizes the theme of ‘Carpe Diem’ in three perfectly structured stanzas. He is a gifted poet who breaks free from the norms of conventional poetry that center around romantic courtships and dares to be candid and bold throughout the poem. Unlike most poems that associate fondness with fine objects, Marvell effectively achieves his desired effect through mood shift. He relies on the concept of ‘Time’ as a driving force behind his passion throughout the poem defines time differently in each stanza. As the poem progresses, he connects all his definitions and thus, brings the poem to a full circle.

Each stanza in the poem is modelled around a specific time frame in the speaker’s mind where the speaker raises successful arguments and justifies his love for his mistress. With the opening of the poem, the speaker paints a picture of a utopia for the listener and teleports to a parallel universe where time ceases to exist and his love for his mistress has no bounds. He confesses in line 1 that if they had ‘world enough and time’ (1), he would admire and complement each body part of his mistress, after which she might finally decide to show him her heart. The speaker believes that he cannot fathom loving her at a lower rate and that his love has no pressures from anything except nature. Set in the future, the second stanza exemplifies the life of the speaker and his mistress after their death. The lines ‘But at my back I always hear \\ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;’ (21-22) convey the fleeting nature of life and that they do not have the time to love at a slower pace. According to the speaker life is short but death is forever. Her beauty can no longer exist, her ‘quaint honor’ (29) would disintegrate and his lust would burn up into nothing but ashes once they die. The third and final stanza transports the reader back to the present. After setting a successful argument, the speaker feels that ‘while the youthful hue\\ sits on thy skin like morning dew,’ (33-34) they must get time under their control. They must embrace each other and break free from the constraints of the prison of time. Though they might not make time stop, they can still make it go slower such that time must catch up with them.

From Marvell’s diction, it is evident that the speaker perceives ‘time’ as a cryptic ambiguity. The speaker in the poem conveys a full range of motion including stillness even though time is constant and does not hurry up or slow down for anyone. The fact that he expresses himself in short point to point arguments glazed with dark concepts establishes the tension in his mind. He finds himself slowly eaten by time and that ‘..(he) cannot make our/sun stand still, yet (he) will make it run.’ (45-46) Here, he continues the allusion of the ‘sun’ when he referred to ‘Time’s winged chariot…’in line 22 of the second stanza. The golden chariot and the sun are sometimes identified with the Greek god Apollo. Some of the earliest time keeping devices included the sun dial and the hour glass and it is evident that the speaker is trying to draw a connection between time and the sun in these lines. He also metaphorically associates time to an hour glass with sand constantly flowing out of one end when he symbolizes time as a ‘desert of vast eternity’ in line 24 of the second stanza.

Unlike most of the 17th century romantic poetry that relied on picturesque ambience, gradual changes, fine and lavish objects to evoke strong emotions from the reader, the speaker uses references to divinity and everyday state of affairs to express himself. According to the speaker, if they had enough time in the world, they ‘would sit down, think and which way / To walk, and pass (their) long love’s day….by Indian Ganges’ side/ Shoulds’t rubies find.’ (3-6) The Indian Ganges was then seen as land of exotic treasures and as a symbol of purity, pristine and divinity. Apart from comparing his love to an invaluable ruby, the speaker also mentions about his ‘vegetable love’ (11). Just like the quick growth of vegetables, he wants his mistress to overcome her ‘coyness’ (1) and love him quickly as they are running out of time.

Marvell shifts between images of freedom and repression throughout the poem and creates a dramatic effect in the listener’s mind. For example, in the second stanza, the speaker refers to ‘marble vault’ (26) and ‘grave’ (31) to illustrate a claustrophobic space. He feels he is trapped by time and the need to escape its confines. However, in the third stanza, in the lines ‘…while thy soul transpires\\ At every pore with instant fires,’ (35-36) the speaker portrays a powerful image of himself escaping his prison by drawing an analogy to the natural phenomena of transpiration of water during photosynthesis in plants.

The speaker also utilizes his beliefs and the experiences in his life to express the length of time instead of the conventional use of days, months and years. In lines 6–10, he says,
…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 Jews.

By ‘tide of Humber’ (6-7), Marvell refers to the turbulent time in his life when his father drowned in Humber, a large tidal estuary in England. The mention of ‘flood’ (8) is another allusion to Noah’s flood which is a symbol for an infinite distant past. He emphasizes his anti – Semitic beliefs when he associates the future with that of the ‘conversion of Jews’ (10) to Christianity which is supposed to signal the rise of Christ (just before the end of the world). By using specific events in the remote past and future, the speaker stresses that he would go back in and time and forward all while loving her unconditionally.

Thus, the poem comes to a full circle when he ends it with reference to time as vaguely as he began writing about it in the first place. Though Marvell never mentions the speaker’s or the mistress’ background or persona, the concealing details like bursts of sensation, overall emotion and the situation of the poem help the listener determine their identity. It proves to be a classic example of Less is Better effect. The less the listener knows about the people in a poem, the more interesting it is to interpret the characters in their own way. Though he presents successful arguments, only time can tell if he was successful enough in wooing his mistress.

Works Cited

Marvell, Andrew. \”To His Coy Mistress.\” Poetry Foundation, poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44688. Accessed 27 September 2015.

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