“To His Coy Mistress” by 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;
A 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 wingèd 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 preserved 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 amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
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.

Background

Written by English poet and author Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). The  exact date of composition is unknown but may have been written in the early 1650s. “To His Coy Mistress” is considered a metaphysical poem which uses extended metaphor, imagery, and hyperbole to describe love and seduction.

Marvell’s poems are filled with wit, irony, complexity, and sometimes mysterious lyrics. He became an increasingly bitter satirist and political writer as “a clever and courageous enemy of court corruption and a defender of religious and political liberty and the rights of Parliament.”¹

Thoughts

“To His Coy Mistress” was thought to be a traditional carpe diem love poem. That is, in more colloquial terms, a “life is short, let me woo you with my words so that we may make love, NOW” poem. Seize the day!

Ah, how romantic? (and poetic)

More recently however, some critics began considering the poem as an ironic statement on sexual seduction. Now, I am not well-versed in poetic analysis nor an expert on poems or poets. In fact, I’m the opposite. I’m a novice drowning in a world of poetic jargon and literary techniques.

Though my guess is uneducated, I indulge the idea that Marvell’s poem was meant more as a whimsical and exaggerated notion of courtship. His gross exaggerations and extreme metaphors seem more like a mockery of the desperately impatient man pursuing a woman with unrequited love.

Or Marvell really was that crude and was infatuated with His Coy Mistress. Multiple interpretations to poetry is what makes it great.

Things To Note

  • Coyness. Just using the word “coy” seems like an interesting choice. Is Marvell deluded in thinking this woman’s rejections are actually a pretense of modesty intending to be alluring?
  • The lines “I would/ Love you ten years before the Flood,/ And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of the Jews.” A hilarious hyperbole with reference to the Bible and Christianity. He will love her before the Flood (God floods the earth sparing only Noah) and until the Jews convert (thought to happen only before the end time or apocalypse). He is saying we will love her forever, from literally before Earth and until the end of the world.
  • Vegetable love? I wish I knew. We get it Marvell, Empires grow but not as fast as vegetables…wait huh? Interesting metaphor to choose. Are vegetables sexy or something?
  • The lines “My echoing song; then worms shall try/ That long preserved virginity,” Seriously!? WHY? Kind of a morbid choice for a love poem, no? Translation: “Sleep with me or your virginity will be taken by worms after you die” Gross.
  • And finally, notice the three stanzas change in mood. The first starts leisurely and playful, the second moves rapidly and worries about the passing of time, and the third urges action to embrace life and pleasures.

Let’s double-down and look at another poem that perhaps highlights the absurdity of Marvell’s poem.

A humorous parody poem full of quips and a bit of [disclaimer] vulgarity was written in the form of a response to Marvell’s poem by Mallory Ortberg published on May 13, 2015. Aptly named “From His Coy Mistress”  gives us the hilarious and sarcastic view from the Mistress’ perspective.

“From His Coy Mistress” By Mallory Ortberg

Oh, well, good news, coyness and not sleeping
with you still aren’t criminal acts,
last time I checked, my man. So
I’m not too worried about that. Feel
like I’ve tried to say this nicely,
but that never works, so let’s try
something else: had I the world and time,
sitting by the river and listening to
you as you try to seduce me would not
be on the top of my list.

I’ve seen weeds sprawl across a garden
and shoot green fingers up the walls
I don’t want an empire of grassy love
growing at me.
Your vegetable love would spoil.
If I get thirty thousand years, I won’t
spend them listening to you describe
my own body to me. (I already know
what it looks like.)

Look, I’m afraid of death, too
But that’s hardly a solid jumping-off point
for sexual negotiations, my vegetal love.
Your dick is not an alternative to the grave.
Fear is not a sufficient cause for defloration.
I’m sorry we can’t fuck in the afterlife,
but you’re not the one who can die in childbirth,
you know what I mean? Of the risks
we’re running, I’d say I’ve got more skin in the game.
Anyhow.

Hawks don’t eat time, or each other.
I’m going to get old whether I fuck you or not.
Chase the sun all you want, I’m still never
having sex with your herbaceous ass.

That’s a pretty wicked burn from the Mistress.

Oh and let’s not forget the painting! The Hireling Shepherd (1851) was painted by artist William Holman Hunt. It shows a shepherd neglecting his flock in favor of an attractive country girl. The meaning of the image is apparently much debated. Info!

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