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 wingéd 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 preservéd virginity;
And you quaint honor 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
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Andrew Marvell - 1681

see, i learned something in A-levels!

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was one of the chief wits and satirists of his time as well as being a Puritan and a public defender of individual liberty. Better known as a politician than a poet in his own time, Marvell's poetry was largely forgotten until it was popularized by T.S. Eliot in the early years of last century.

    The Waste Land
    Part II
    Lines 141, 152, 165, 168, 169

    "Hurry up please, it's time" would be a typical call from a bartender to indicate that the bar is closing. Compare these "Hurry up" lines with the following lines' allusions to Andrew Marvell's 21st and 22nd lines in To His Coy Mistress:

    • 185) But at my back in a cold blast I hear
    • 186) The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

    • 196) But at my back from time to time I hear
    • 197) The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
    • 198) Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
The son of a clergyman marvell attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he must have garnered an excellent education because John Milton the poet, who was not easily impressed remarked that he was well read in the Greek and Latin classics. Around 1650 he began to tutor Mary Fairfax, daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Owners of several large estates the Fairfaxes invited Marvell to a place called Nun Appleton. It was there where he wrote Upon Appleton House. He wrote only for his friends and his own entertainment in the best fashion of the Renaissance.

Leaving Fairfax in the early 1650's, where most critics believe he wrote his best poems, Marvell became tutor to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector and essentially dictator of England. By 1657 he was the assistant to John Milton aiding him in carrying out his duties as Latin Secretary to the Council of the state because he was blind. After King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Marvell managed somehow by way of influence with the Royalists to save Milton's life. Without Marvell there may have never been a Paradise Lost. Under Charles II Marvell served in politics until he died. It was at this point that he began to publish verse satires and prose pamphlets against political opponents. Yet his lyric poems remained in written manuscripts until after his death when his housekeeper claimed to be his wife, Mary Marvell, sold them to a publisher. The volume appeared in 1681 called Miscellaneous Poems made no impression at the time since styles of poetry had changed and his witty ingenious metaphors may have been regarded as old and out dated to the readers of the day who were fans of the rational lucid works of John Dryden and other writers of the Restoration. Several of his poems are under the surface deep and thoughtful similar to John Donne and George Herbert. Many scholars hail him as the "most major" poet of all the minor poets in English.

To His Coy Mistress is one poem that appeared in Miscellaneous Poems. An "invitation to love" poem, the speaker entreats a woman to give herself to him with a seize the day urgency. Soon he reasons they will lose the prime of their lives and they will become old, unattractive; finally dead. Marvell has pulled his theme from an ancient one of Roman custom where a human skull was often a part of the decorations at their wild parties. Using clever literary devices the scene is set for a playful and powerful debate of morality versus mortality and his goal, seduction. It's done by uniting elements of form, rhetoric, and imagery into a subtle argument with which the speaker attempts to convince a reluctant lady. Broken into sections Marvell uses a logical form called a conditional statement with some fairly common images from his day like "vegetable love" and "time's winged chariot". He begins his argument in the first verse with Tempus fugit or time flies. If they had all the time in the world, her coyness would not matter she could preserve her virginity and he would sing mournful songs of rejection while waiting through the ages. He would fill it with his love; dividing it up into periods to adore each part of her. The mistress's 'heart', her very being, would be revealed to him at the end and he assures her that she deserves this treatment Memento Mori; time is swift, begins his second verse and includes an Hegelian argument. Eternity he says is long and dreary; beauty and desire and love will not exist in the grave and thus begins the groundwork for his third argument. Carpe diem or to seize the day while they have youth and energy they should join together. He reasons that this allows them the ability to take control of their lives rather than simply be victims; that to defeat time they should give in to their desires.

Taken as a whole it is fresh and thoughtful with the occasional peculiar contrasts. It's easy to be caught off guard by the lines "The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace." Marvell employs a device traditionally used for the proof of a hypothesis or a philosophical statement. The poem has a thesis, a statement; an antithesis, a counter statement; and a synthesis, a resolution. In the first two sections 'I' and 'me' flatters first then warnings appear of dire consequences. By the last verse it has become 'we' as he confesses with heroic passion. This is what is defined as syllogism: deductive statements like ' if x is y then y must be z.' Anyone who was educated in Renaissance England would have this kind of rhetoric drummed into them. The effect of this is bizarre: akin to a legal argument, the syntax is dominated by 'if's and 'would's and 'then's and 'therefore's, but instead of anchoring the poem they cast it into a complex state of conditional non-existence.

I'm not sure if it's a good idea to dwell on death in the hopes of seducing someone but the ideas are a masterful union of idealism and realism; both the idea of perfect and joyful love and the awareness of mortal constraints on love. Although the poem has a strong regulated meter the pace picks up in the final twelve lines as if to convince her that they do have some control over time. In the first verse he puts her on an exotic river in India gathering gems while he adores from the less sublime Humber that runs beside Hull where Marvell lived as a boy and returned later to serve as a Member of Parliament. Maintaining he would love her through the spans of time:

    ...I would
    Love you ten years before the Flood,
    And you should, if you please, refuse
    Till the conversion of the Jews.
A period from ten years before the flood occurring in Genesis some time after creation until the conversion of the Jews which was to happen at Armageddon referring to what Christians once held that all Jews would become Christians just before the end of the world. Vegetable love means that of his "vegetable" soul; having the power to grow very large perhaps an image is of an all conquering vine which insidiously works its way through a forest or field, overtaking incredible spaces until it becomes "vaster than empires." Line thirty four originally read as glew, which has been determined to meaning glow. Slow-chapp'd would indicate time's slowly devouring jaw. Altogether he cannot wait. Eloquently pointing out that the cares of the moment do not matter as time is slowly absorbing them both, as it does all things. The final two stanzas:
    Thus, though we cannot make our sun
    Stand still, yet we will make him run.
refers to Joshua 10:13 where the Lord heeds pleas of the oppressed:
    The sun stopped in midheaven,
    and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

    There has been no day like it before or since,
    when the LORD heeded a human voice;

    for the LORD fought for Israel.

    On the day the sun stood still, "The Lord fought for Israel."

In Renaissance England calling a woman mistress did not always imply a sexual affair with a man, she could be, and almost always was, just a friend, as he portrays in this poem. At the same time it's much deeper than similar poetry of its kind. John Dryden once wittily described John Donne's love poetry as calculated to "perplex the mind of the fair sex." Part of the pleasure of the witticism, of course, lies in its cutting edge and are thought to be pitched quite above the heads of the lady or ladies to whom they claim to be addressed. Beneath the surface of impassioned courtship, Marvell's urgings in this poem are so charming and funny that nobody has poked around old records to discover if it was autobiographical. Teeming with overwrought similes and outsized conceits the title means; "To his cold, stand offish girlfriend," that is a strategic withholding of information one can gather by the obvious third person possessive in the title of the poem. However, in stark contrast the body of the poem is written in the first and second person and the speaker addresses the lady directly. And yet in the title of the poem, he coolly acknowledges another audience. This man wants this woman by George, but the reader must ponder now for a moment, for whose amusement is this lady being wooed? Using majestic endurance Marvell dwells deeply and refutes the details of human morality with extreme and moribund frustrations entreating the woman to listen to him, even perhaps feel that even, he argues, immoral behavior while she still lives is preferred to being good, yet dead. The poem remains, like the mistress it celebrates, imaginary. The conclusion is in fact so deeply ambiguous one can't help but wonder if he was successful. So it seems have others.

    "Let us roll all our strength and all
    Our sweetness up into one ball,"
"And after all, would it have been worth while, amid such trivialities, "to have squeezed the universe into a ball", as Marvell proposed to do with his "Coy Mistress"....The argument starts again, and the question is once more raised: should he have dared? And again the same answer: "Would it have been worth while?"-- for the lady, turning towards the window, could say: "That is not it at all, That is not what I meant at all"--T.S. Eliot

Selected Sources:

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) To his Coy Mistress:

Dendrys: "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell:

Blair, Bob:

To His Coy Mistress:

A close reading. One note: strophe, antistrophe, and epode are pretty much the same as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and form the same syllogism Lometa explains so clearly.

To His Coy Mistress is an apparently straightforward poem. The speaker say that, if immortal, he would gladly spend thousands of years wooing his mistress; points out that, regrettably, this is not the case; and therefore suggests they sleep together now. This is not a particularly intricate argument.

When compared to other poems of the same era given the Carpe Diem label, however - poems like Robert Herrick’s To Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, or the work of Thomas Carew - it becomes clear that Andrew Marvell’s poem is a far more ambiguous and interesting creature. It is not simply a plea for sex. It is at once absolutely in earnest and deeply ironic, both an impassioned plea and a detached analysis, and achieves its effects in subtle and complex ways.

The key to understanding the poem above its simplest level is to understand that Marvell and the narrator of the poem are not necessarily one and the same. The first hint of this is in the title - To His Coy Mistress rather than ‘My’. The realisation of this possibility - that the poem may not be from Marvell’s point of view but rather that of an imaginary lover - makes possible a new layer of irony:it allows us to both admire the grandeur of the language and smile at the intention behind it.

The metaphors and images Marvell uses are nothing if not hyperbolic. His narrator promises

...I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews
- that is, until armageddon. He also allocates ‘an age at least’ to the admiration of ‘every part’. There is more than a hint of unwarranted flattery about this, particularly in
For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.
(He would, of course: that, from the speaker’s point of view, is the whole point of the poem.)

We may therefore question whether he really means all of this. If he speaks in such extraordinarily high terms, is it not reasonable to surmise that his mistress cannot possibly live up to his billing? Of course, the enormous qualification which he has made to render all this possible - that is, immortality - renders it less impressive, and perhaps more believable. It would be an even more extraordinary claim that each breast deserved two hundred years adulation if he were limited to a mortal lifespan.

And this is the point. The high praise is immediately undercut, arguably to comic effect, by the antistrophe of the second stanza. Rather than finding rubies on the banks of the Ganges, his lover is cast as being invaded as a corpse by phallic worms; rather than reasonable and expected, as is implied by ‘you deserve this state’, her honour becomes a ‘quaint’ thing; and in the last couplet of the stanza -

The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace
- she is effectively patronised, and mocked.

Even the final stanza, in which the syllogism is completed, and which is arguably the most impassioned and straightforward in terms of possible interpretation, contains a playful ambiguity which undermines the argument even as it is made. By saying

Not let us sport us while we may;
And now, like amorous birds of prey...
the character adopted by Marvell reduces the sexual act to something base and animalistic, purely carnal and with little relationship to the eternal love which he has been professing up to this point. ‘Sport’ is not the usual word for sexual congress in the context of true love: the strongest resonance I find in it is of Gloucester’s exclamation at the beginning of King Lear that ‘there was good sport at his making’ when referring to his bastard son’s conception. (Given the context here, it is not the fact that the encounter is out of wedlock which makes the comparison interesting; rather, that the clear implication of Gloucester’s words is that it was just sex, nothing more. This is not to take a particular moral stance over the correctness or otherwise of sex for sex’s sake - but given the continual insistence of the narrator that he loves his mistress, there is certainly a moral issue concerning his honesty.)

We may be struck by the sharp contrast between the use of the natural image here, which suggests only the physical and the urgent, instinctive need for sex, and the sentiment of stanza 12 of Eyes and Tears:

For others, too, can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.

The one insists on humanity’s distinction from the animal kingdom by dint of the ability to feel; the other sees humanity at its most basic and irrational, as governed principally by physical needs rather than any higher sentiment. Such an impression is strengthened by the use of further natural images like ‘morning dew’ and the more suggestive ‘instant fires’, which again hints at a lack of control.

The nature imagery which runs through the poem is a powerful unifying factor between the three separate parts of the argument. The progression is an interesting one: it starts, in the stanza imagining an ideal, immortal world, with the inanimate vegetable; it moves, in the answering stanza, to an animal at the very bottom of the food chain, the worm; and it ends in its exhorting conclusion with the majestic bird of prey. The moves up the evolutionary ladder might suggest a similar attitude to the three different states of the poem in the narrator - again, rather undermining the professed desire to woo his beloved for thousands of years. This is a very different nature to that of the Mower poems or Bermudas, where it is largely sympathetic or at least ambivalent: here, the first image is about power, the second a strange mix of perversity and decay, and the third aggression and urgency.

There is an extraordinary tension between the possible interpretations here which is a large part of what makes the poem so rich. On the one hand, it can be read as above, as a cynical attempt at seduction for purely carnal reasons, and as such funny in its elevated language and contrast in strophe and antistrophe of high praise and dire warning, and in the way we can see the wooer’s deception; on the other, it can be taken at face value, as an impassioned and genuine plea to stop wasting time and consumate true love. Such a question of interpretation is inevitably a highly personal one, resting as it does on personal moral values as well as the text; the only general point that can be made is to say that it would be foolish to suggest that Marvell is exclusively suggesting one or the other. Marvell is certainly capable,as he demonstrates in poems like Bermudas and On a Drop of Dew, of writing unambiguous paeans, or of taking a single point of view and prosecuting it: he simply does not do so here. To take one couplet as an example:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and yet more slow
...contains hints of both. On the one hand, the image is a majestic one, of an extraordinary love that would last forever, and grow forever; on the other, it is surely no accident that the narrator has chosen a metaphor which relies on conquest for its expansion. ‘And yet more slow’, then, may hint at frustration as well as dignity and grace.

Marvell’s language is certainly sufficiently rich to make the case for the poem as an overwhelmingly positive piece of work which largely endorses the narrator’s view highly credible. There is an almost elegaic, wistful quality to the strophe, in the way it laments the impossibility of this ideal world; and the image of the Ganges - the flow of the river symbolising at some level the continual passing of time, even in this immortal version of reality - is a powerful one. (It gains a certain humour, too, from the juxtaposition with the Humber.) Meanwhile, the antistrophe and epode are intense and urgent pieces of writing, and contain tremendous compressed erotic power. The sexual images of the second stanza are extraordinary: perhaps the most bizarre are the worms that

...shall try
that long preserved virginity,
an image that recalls the strangeness of some of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, but the others are similarly powerful, in large part because of the density of the passage. Three (possibly four, if ‘quaint’ is connected, as Elizabeth Story Donno suggests, with the middle english noun ‘queynte,’ meaning pudenda) sexual images in the same number of lines is a veritable onslaught. We are left in little doubt as to the voraciousness of the narrator’s sexual appetite, nor the earnestness of his desire; and the juxtaposition of the sexual with images of decay makes the need all the more pressing.

The final stanza is perhaps the most powerful part of the poem. In it, the narrator neither resigns himself and his lover to death, nor pretends that it is not an unavoidable reality: rather, the spirit of the section is summed up by the final couplet:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we wil make him run.

The inevitablity of death is accepted, but not allowed to defeat or dominate. Rather than the arguably wishful thinking of, for instance, John Donne’s Death be Not Proud, the stance taken is one of pragmatic optimism. This is common, of course, to much poetry in this tradition; Marvell’s is distinguished perhaps most of all by the violent passion of the language. We find, in the last stanza, the following words: ‘willing’; ‘instant’; ‘fires’; ‘sport’; ‘prey’; ‘devour’; ‘power’; ‘strength’; ‘tear’; ‘rough’; ‘strife’; ‘iron’; ‘grates’; and ‘run’. These are all active, positive words, many of them aggressive and vehement, and almost all either single strong syllables or spondees. But this concentration of urgency seems entirely artless.

Marvell almost entirely avoids the cliches of Carpe Diem poetry. If one considers the final couplet of Horace’s original poem (James Michie’s translation):

Don't trust tomorrow's bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.
...and compares
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
from Robert Herrick’s To Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, the similarity is almost painfully obvious, and continues throughout Herrick’s verse. By contrast, Marvell, with the possible exception of
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged charriot hurrying near
steers clear of cliche, even though he is addressing, broadly speaking, the same themes. As T.S.Eliot said of him, he fulfils the common definition of the poet’s task: he makes the familar new. As Eliot also argues, this is largely due to his choice of imagery.

Nevertheless, the role of the structure of the poem should not be overlooked in any analysis of its success. In "Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot", Pierre Legouis effectively demonstrates how his use of the ode structure, and the syllogistic nature of his argument, is brilliantly ‘made new,’ and the argument is therefore made more powerful and more striking. In essence, he argues that because, strictly speaking, the logical conclusion of the strophe and antistrophe is ‘we should not tarry in the preliminary maneouvres of courtship’, the strengthening of this into the much more positive ‘therefore we must grasp the fleeting instant for love’ gains a newpassion and authority.

Finally, the poem’s metrical and rhythmic conceits aid its development a great deal. The use of almost exclusively masculine rhymes helps underline the growing urgency of the poem massively, and makes the feminine rhymes on ‘eternity’ and ‘virginity’ - two key concepts of the poem - all the more striking; similarly, the conflict between the line lengths and the sentence lengths - particularly early on, where enjambment is used a great deal, to disquieting effect - echoes the jolting fever at the poem’s core and precisely mirrors Marvell’s thematic concerns. His AABB... scheme, though simple, is exactly suited to the tone of the poem, since it allows the verse to rush ever onwards without needing to wait long for the close of a rhyme. And his occasional slowing of the pace of the poem - in lines such as

vast as empires, and more slow
is always measured and appropriate.

Carpe Diem poetry, with all its cliched connotations, may make the modern reader groan. But To His Coy Mistress is much more than a straightfoward exhortation to live each day as if the last. It is a complex and even disturbing poem, raising questions of the difference between author and narrator, forcing us to make moral decisions, and refusing to ever give us easy answers. It asks us to seize the day, yes; but it does much more besides.

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