To His Coy Mistress: An Analysis

So: I figured I should do something on this topic of metaphysical poetry, to supplement my extra reading ahead of university. It is – to my mild surprise – a very interesting period, because it takes a style that seems inherently classical and uses it to answer much broader questions about life, the Universe and everything. The metaphysical is, weirdly, kind of like Doctor Who, because it can seem an incredibly hackneyed and clichéd genre, basically the epitome of “help me, this poem is old and terrible.” It seems quite basic, in the sense of “this is a boring, old, terrible poem”, but the questions they ask are all weird and newfangled once you get into them.

The imagery is pretty cool, too. Donne’s flea in the eponymous poem is the gold standard, best-known, metaphysical conceit, and they only get weirder.

I think the Doctor Who allegory (above) was a bit nonsensical, and to be honest I only used it because it segues nicely into what I’m going to look at today: Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, of which the famous opening lines, “Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime”, gave us a title for a DW episode this year.

Anyway, moving on:

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 [5]

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. [10]

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, [15]

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. [20]

       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; [25]

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; [30]

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 [35]

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. [40]

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 [45]

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

 

Okay, then.

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

So, the narrator opens with a lament, “had we but world enough and time”, immediately imposing a certain negativity on the poem. By instantly putting himself down in this way, he adds another motivation for the nameless woman to cheer him up by offering sex. Not only will it fulfil her (as he goes on to argue), but she’ll be getting rid of this depressive mood that has settled over both of them, so everybody wins. But it’s more important to draw our attention to the “we”, as this is stressed by the tetrameter;  the narrator instantly identifies himself with the object of his affections, and imposes his feelings upon her. If we take a gendered perspective on this, we could argue that Marvell views the role of the woman in the relationship is to be immediately subservient. This isn’t at all odd, but what is kind of strange is the fact that he goes after her heart so hard. But if his ideal woman is bound to follow his feelings, what’s the point? It’s somewhat oxymoronic that he both wants this woman to do exactly as he commands, but at the same time he feels the need to pursue her. So the narrator doesn’t really know what he wants either, despite the fact that he gives the impression of being assured and in command of the situation.

Moving on: after the narrator reproaches the lady’s “coyness”, he continues his lamentation by describing what they would do if they had the time (lines 5-10)

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.

The narrator confirms himself as Marvell with the reference to “the tide / Of Humber”; Marvell was from Hull, by which the river Humber runs. He juxtaposes this by placing his love at the “Indian Ganges”. He also juxtaposes the wealth and prosperity of their lives; while he lives a mundane life in Hull – probably the worst city in England, even during Marvell’s time – she is down by the Ganges, finding “rubies” in the river. A colonic caesura “Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide” reinforces the separation between the two, and splits lines 5-7 into two separate masculine and feminine halves. There’s a disparity between his side, which, again displays mundanity, and hers, which uses a lot more flamboyant allusions and altogether brighter language. This is explicitly suggestive of her beauty, but if we look beyond that, it seems to undercut this illusion: “Indian Ganges” and “rubies”, though lurid, are hardly complex in a linguistic sense; we can say these words very easily. So while the “coy mistress” masquerades herself as some enigmatic figure decked in jewels, she’s really quite a simple animal – like Marvell himself. There’s also an interesting repetition of “should” or variations thereon in lines 6, 9 and 11. We’re reminded that this is all hypothetical, but using “should” rather than “could” is a bit more authoritative – shades of Donne’s “The Flea” come through here – and also creates an argument of fate within the poem.

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.

This passage (lines 12-15) is interesting for all the subversions the poetic line allows. Marvell opens with “An hundred years should go to praise”, which a godly fellow might agree with, then moves onto the next line with “Thine eyes”, proving that he hasn’t had a religious epiphany, but is, indeed, back to wooing this woman. He then moves on to “Two hundred to adore each breast.” Obviously, with “breast” coming in here, there’s a lot of sexuality coming through, but again, Marvell subverts this: he isn’t filthy minded after all; in fact, he’s devoting “thirty thousand” years to the rest, turning away from the overt place of sexuality. Of course, by taking so long in doing this, he’s imposing his will on the woman again; he can only spend “an age” admiring her if she just stands there naked in front of him and does nothing. So she’s become a static object for his voyeurism, which leads us back to Marvell wanting to impose complete control over his love; notice that she doesn’t seem to have anything of an active role within the poem. What if she wants to spend thirty thousand years admiring him? Well, we can’t have that, because by doing so, she gains a certain lusty quality that he (implicitly) doesn’t really want. This can be compared with Donne’s “The Good Morrow”, as in that poem Donne advocates for a (more or less) equal role for the woman: “let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one,” allowing her to engage in lustful behaviour alongside him.

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;

This passage (lines 23-30) is interesting for making use of slant rhymes/half-rhymes, on “lie / eternity” and “try / virginity”. This creates an unsettling undertone for a passage which, after all, is all about the loneliness of death. Thus the “coy mistress”, in this part, would be discouraged by the unfamiliar rhythm on hearing Marvell’s description of the grave. Wouldn’t she much rather be somewhere nice, where everything rhymes? And if that’s not enough, there’s some nice invokation of Christian prayer – “dust”, “ashes”. Marvell implies that her virginity would be destroyed by worms – if we take that in a literal sense, that’s a truly horrifying image – so he wouldn’t she much rather have it ‘destroyed’ by him, a man who lusts for her. It’s better for both of them, because in doing so, she’ll also vanquish his lust without the need for worms to destroy that, too.

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

 One of my favourite images from the poem is at the start of the third stanza, on lines 35-36. “Transpir[ation]” is an interesting term to use, as it links to natural imagery, more specifically to Marvell’s mention of “vegetable love” in line 11. In his case, “vegetable love” is a phallic symbol; with her, it’s a little more difficult to decipher, but it could easily relate to a vagina. Transpiration is a natural process in plants, so maybe Marvell is implying that to have sex with him – for her soul to “transpire” – would also be natural, and she wouldn’t be judged for it. At the same time, he could be referring to the menstrual cycle, but on balance this is probably less likely given what he’s trying to stir in her during this poem. Alternatively, we can take things away for a bit, and consider that the invocation of the pastoral is a common metaphysical theme, especially in Marvell’s poetry, where he considers “The Garden” to be his own personal paradise and uses it to explore man’s responsibilities in the natural world. Either way, though, the next line, “instant fires”, seems to immediately destroy that imagery with what seems to be a reference to Hell itself. That seems to reinforce the common suggestion that the “transpiration” is sinful and will condemn them both to hell, which is inconsistent. So how do we look at this? Well, Marvell posits the verb “transpire” as an action of the woman. When she does the transpiring, she’ll be condemning herself to hell for her lust, but… it’s all right if he does the transpiring instead, and pursues his lust for her. All this seems to suggest that Marvell is glad that his mistress is “coy”, because he wouldn’t want to go pursuing someone who has equal lust for him. So throughout this poem, though he’s coaxing her to “seize the day”, he might not actually want her to do that. What he wants her to do is fall for him after his relentless assault, not to simply swoon and collapse into his arms. Arguably this lends some strength to the female character, but at the same time, there’s such egregious misogyny here that the view is difficult to support.

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:

Marvell goes on with this condemnation with imagery of “birds of prey”, “slow-chapped power” (slow-chapped meaning “slowly devouring”), “devour[ing]” and “tear[ing]” roughly, and imprisonment behind “iron grates”. This very brutal imagery, again, seems to suggest that it is dangerous to let lust consume the woman; he’s turning her away from lust, warning her that it’s some sort of monster that only he, as a man, is capable of defeating. But at the same time, he wants her to try and engage with the lust, at his side, a sort of faithful sidekick following the hero on his quest – in other words, he doesn’t want her to ‘fight’ lust with anyone other than him, and he doesn’t want her to be with anyone other than him when she reveals her full potential of her lust.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

At the end of the poem, Marvell offers another reason for engaging with ‘the beast of lust’. He again returns to his initial invocation that time is short, but offers an alternative solution; instead of trying to outrun it – which is impossible – they should fight it by making it go faster (“mak[ing] him run”). It’s almost a heroic invocation, calling the mistress up to fight alongside him even if their battle is ultimately futile. This can be compared to Donne’s “The Sun Rising”, though with a bit more humility – unlike Donne, Marvell knows that he cannot defeat cosmic powers like “the sun”, but he will put up a good fight against this entity which, as he believed, orchestrated time. In joining him, the coy mistress will help prove his masculinity and heroism, and also enhance her own heroic virtue, though, as he previously reminds her, it is too dangerous for her to take this fight alone.

Though it may constitute a stretch of the language, there is an alternative interpretation of the final line, in which “sun” can be read as “son”. This undermines the idea of the great battle with a quainter outcome. The narrator suggests that, if he and his lover have sex, they cannot prevent the conception of a son. But what they can do is maintain their relationship and raise him together in the spirit of their love: “they can make him run”. Though this isn’t quite as exciting as the other interpretation of the giant Paradise Lost-style battle of the cosmos, it gives a bit of credibility back to the narrator, as it removes the idea that he’s unecessarily concerned with his own vanity and masculinity, and gives him some credibility in wanting a genuine relationship. But you know, that’s a bit boring.

 

 

 

 

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