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Poetry Commentary on To His Coy Mistress

In the poem To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell reveals a man’s sexual feelings towards a woman. The poem, essentially, regards relationships between the sexes and encompasses the male desire for sex. Throughout the piece, the speaker attempts to persuade a young lady to have sex with him. Certainly, the poem itself is rich with metaphysical conceits and its depiction of the carpe diem theme. It is notable for its playful and explicit treatment of sex, its full control of tone and pace, together with its precision in wording. With the employment of several motifs, strong imagery, poetic figures, rhyme and meter, the poet can build an incredibly emotional persuasion.

In the first stanza, Marvell uses the metaphysical conceit and begins with the tactic of impressing and flattering his lover as a means of persuasion for sex. Here, he claims that he will spend lavish amounts of time courting and praising his mistress as she is worthy of such an act because he has all of eternity. However, already in the first line, the poet employs irony by using the word “Had,” setting this section of the poem in subjunctive tense, as it affirms that the lovers will not live forever. Instead, this implies that they do not have all the time in the world and that the speaker is, in fact, aware of this even before he begins his flattery. Hence, we see that the speaker will discuss how he would treat his mistress if they had unlimited time. Here, we also become aware of the meter and rhyme present in the poem – the poem comprises rhyming couplets and iambic tetrameter, which is maintained throughout the entire poem.

Marvell proceeds to accomplish his objective by reassuring his lover that “this coyness, lady, were no crime” (L.2) as nothing stands in between their love since, supposedly, they have all of eternity to pursue it. So she can have all the time she needs to decide whether or not she desires to engage with him. Despite the meter present in the first two lines of the poem, the poet also employs commas to create a pausing effect, interrupting himself to show his easiness with the slow passage of time: “(…) world enough, and time, / (…) coyness, lady, were no crime,” (L.1-2). Also, by suggesting for the lovers to “sit down, and think which way / to walk” (L.3 – 4) for them to “pass [their] long love’s day” (L.4), the poet emphasizes the concepts of time and space. Clearly, the poet offers a striking amount of alliteration in this first stanza, as it is used in each of the first four lines: “We…would” (L.1), “coyness…crime” (L.2), “we would…which way” (L.3) and “long…love” (L.4).

By doing this, his words seem more alluring when wooing his lover, as it adds playfulness to the poem itself. The poet proceeds to refer to world geography as a means of impressing and pleasing his lover not only through his diction – “the Indian Ganges” (L. 5) and “Humber” (L.7) – but also through his use of strong images, as he makes her imagination wander to rivers both near and far. The employment of exotic imagery also aids this process, as he affirms that “by the Indian Ganges’ side / Shouldst rubies find” (L. 5 – 6). Providing images that are more tempting than any domestic sight in England, where both lovers are from, entices the woman, as it leads her to believe that committing to him will take her to new places and live through plenty of fascinating new experiences. Also, in addition to geography, the poet alludes to biblical history by mentioning “the flood” (L.8), a section of the Genesis in the Bible, as a way of emphasizing his worldliness and intellect. Still asserting religious history, the speaker refers to the conversion of the Jews as a way of affirming that his lover can refuse to have sex with him “till the conversion of the Jews” (L.10).

Both of these religious references are not only a way of assuring his lover that he would love and appreciate her for an extended period of time before physically engaging with her, but also a way to develop the concept of time; this is because most of the Jews, in actual fact, never, or have not yet converted to Christianity, showing that she has a lot of time to make her decision. Marvell proceeds to offer a metaphor in which he compares his love to vegetable growth. Evidently, this comparison is somewhat ironic in the conditional tense because vegetative growth is slow and unconscious. At the same time, his impassioned love grows rapidly and intentionally as he is aware of his limited time. To develop this thought, the poet underlines the insignificance of the rate of growth of their love and emphasizes the sheer size of the growth of his love by claiming that his “vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires and slower” (L.11-12). Once again, the exotic imagery of empires provided here serves to tantalize his mistress. Subsequently, there is a clear shift in objective: the speaker now wants to praise more than impress.

In this regard, the poet moves from clear amounts of time, respectively “A hundred years (…)” (L.13), to inconceivable amounts – all to make the woman believe that he is devoted, as well as fascinated with her body, or simply her presence. Consequently, the speaker’s numbers only increase, concluding by asking her to envision thirty thousand years until it requires “an age… to every part” (L.17). Following this, the poet refers to their love on a long-term basis by stating that when the heat of sexual fervour subsides, then one can only hope to be left with an authentic person because “the last age should show your heart” (L.18). Proceeding, the poet clarifies that his lover is worthy of “this state” (L.19), meaning that he is committed to the conquest of satisfying her. Although it may take years for her to accept, he would be willing to take things slower with her because “nor would [he] love at a lower rate” (L.20).

In the second stanza, Marvel opposes himself by altering his flattering approach to a fearful and threatening approach, as he now bases his tactic on the encroachment of time and the thought that time will forever chase them and admits that after all, they don’t have all of eternity. Immediately, we can see that the romantic mood of the poem has changed as the first line of the section begins with the word “but.” Key to the speaker’s argument, the poet offers a metaphor in line 22, which refers to time’s power, speed, and inevitability. A winged chariot does not exist and relates to Roman mythology and Apollo’s flying chariot: “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” This metaphor enhances the saying that time flies and adds a darker tone for this second section. Marvell proceeds to refer back to the first stanza of the poem by mentioning how he would “yonder all before us lie/deserts of vast eternity” (L. 23-24), which could be the age the speaker would dedicate to worshiping his listener’s “every part” (L.17). Here, the poet also emphasizes how time is limited by comparing their lives to the “deserts of vast eternity” (L.24); from this comparison, we see how their lives are merely fragments.

Instead, the poet speaks of how neither his lust nor his lovers’ beauty will preserve throughout all of eternity; from this, we can see the change in time from both sections, as the poem moved from ten years before the flood into eternity and how the lifelessness of this second section forms a contrast with the rich luxury of the first. We can also notice the “rubies” (L.6) the poet referred to in the first stanza of the poem regarding this second stanza, as rubies were believed to preserve virginity. Moreover, with the use of repugnant images such as “worms” (L.27), “dust” (L.29) and “ashes” (L.30), the poet can emphasize the lifelessness of the poem, as the images are related to the decomposition of bodies, referring directly to the grave. By doing this, contrast is once again formed between the first stanza and second stanza of the poem, which serves to make his lover value the differences between life and death.

These words are used to scare his lover into engaging sexually with him; if they don’t consummate “that long preserved virginity” (L.28), they would grow old and pass away. In turn, the poet says that rather than being penetrated by her lover, “(…) worms shall try” (L.27) to penetrate and praise her in her “marble vault” (L.26), where “none, I think, do there embrace” (L32). He “(…) shall sound / [his] echoing song (…)” (L.26-27) of rejection while waiting for her. Once again, this is done to emphasize the encroachment of time and how his lover cannot spend all of the eternity making a decision, or else her “quaint honour [shall] turn to dust” (L.29). We can also note the successful change in mood of the poem (from romantic to sexual) and the effect of his choice of language; the speaker employs language that appeals more to his lover’s emotions than her intellect. Not only that, but words such as “deserts” (L.24), “worms” (L.27), “dust” (L.29) and “ashes” (L.30) are more physical and primitive than the remote, abstract language used in the first stanza.

Markedly, we can see how the speaker appropriately stops using alliteration for this dull second stanza as he is contemplating the grave. In the third stanza, the poet concludes his argument by placing the light on the theme of carpe diem. Essentially, in this section, the poet clarifies that he wants to have sex now and so urges his lover to seize the moment and submit. Immediately, we notice how the poet finishes the transition using the word “now” (L.33). Here, we can see that he wants to have sex “now… while the youthful hue / Sits on thy skin like morning dew” (L.33-34). This simile is used to present the situation as clearly as possible to his mistress, as he refers to how their love is ephemeral since they are going to grow old; therefore, they should seize the moment. To tempt her to engage sexually with him, the poet depicts a metaphor to show how his “soul transpires” (L.35) through her body with “instant fires” (L.36).

This, clearly, does not mean literal flames upon her skin but instead is employed to illustrate how the feeling of ardent desire, which is how he feels for her, is parallel to heat. Because the poet refers to several fires rather than only one, they are immediate instead of continuous, strengthening the moment’s transience. The poet now says that because they are still in the “morning” (L.34) of their life, they should “sport” (L.37) while they can. Once again, we can note a change in both the mood and the language of the poem: it now encompasses a passionate mood and is characterized by fiery infatuation. As such, the poet now provides us with strong images of flaring passion such as “instant fires” (L.36), “birds of prey” (L.38) and “devour” (L.39). Unlike the first stanza, where the speaker attempts to persuade her to agree with him, he now uses these intense images to tempt and awaken his lover’s desire, which reveals the speakers’ desperation.

The imagery also serves as a simile, as “birds of prey” (L.38) are not usually “amorous” (L.38), on the contrary; here, we can also note a contrast between these birds and the “vegetable love” (L.11) the speaker referred to at the beginning of the poem. This is clear through the observation that a vegetable comes from the vegetative part of a plant, as opposed to birds, which comes from the reproductive part; from this, it is evident that the speaker has changed his mindset from loving her forever to just having sex with her. The poet proceeds to emphasize the theme of seizing the moment by telling her that they should “roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball / and tear our pleasures with rough strife” (L.41-43). Although iambic tetrameter is maintained throughout the entire poem, the use of meter in line 41 reflects the speaker’s breathlessness, hence showing that the pace of the poem has increased.

The speaker is also in a hurry through the absence of punctuation, as no commas are used and the application of words that only contain one syllable. Now, we can see that the poet is reaching his concluding remarks as he begins the final rhyming couplet with the word “Thus” (L.45). Here, he finishes with the use of alliteration once again to impress his lover: “Thus… though” (L.45), “sun/standstill” (L.45-46) and “we will” (L.46). Finally, the poet concludes the poem by stating that “we cannot make our sun/stand still, yet we will make him run” (L.45-46), meaning that they’ll try to maintain their passion in existence. All of this enforces the speaker’s overall argument and eloquently reveals that their current cares or troubles are not of great relevance as time is slowly gripping them both, hence pronouncing that they should seize the moment by giving into their ardent temptations.

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Poetry Commentary on To His Coy Mistress. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved August 30, 2021, from