Friday, April 01, 2005

To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress


    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
    Times winged 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 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


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

Blair, Bob

Dendrys: "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell

Public Domain text taken from The Poet's Corner

To His Coy Mistress

2 comments:

Lean Zu Lee said...

Hi, I droppped by your blog coz I was doing an assignment for my lecturer.I like the way you 'peel' the poem away layer by layer. I can understand the poem now. Thanks a lot!

lometa said...

Thank you so much! Feedback is always appreciated.