How might one compare Robert Herrick's poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" with Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” are both carpe diem poems. In other words, both poems encourage young women to “seize the day” and enjoy physical pleasures (especially sex) while the women are still young.

The poems, however, not only reveal some similarities but also display many differences. Among these comparisons and contrasts are the following:

  • If it were not for the title of Herrick’s poem, it might be difficult to know whom, precisely, its speaker is addressing. The poem certainly addresses no single person in particular. However, the speaker of Marvell’s poem clearly addresses one specific woman, and the fact that she is a woman is repeatedly emphasized.
  • The speaker of Herrick’s poem seems to be offering general advice; the speaker of Marvell’s poem seems quite self-interested. In Herrick’s poem, the speaker never refers to himself by using the word “I”; Marvell’s speaker uses that word repeatedly.
  • The speaker of Marvell’s poem seems much more sexually obsessed than the speaker of Herrick’s poem. Marvell’s speaker alludes to the lady’s breasts (line14) and, later, even to her vagina (29). There are no such allusions in Herrick’s poem.
  • The speaker of Herrick’s poem seems to be trying to persuade young women in general to marry (and thus make any sexual activity religiously legitimate):

­Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry . . .

In contrast, the speaker of Marvell’s poem seems interested only in sex, not in any kind of socially or religiously sanctioned relationship.

  • The tone of Herrick’s speaker is calm and gentle; the tone of Marvell’s speaker seems urgent and anxious: he wants to have sex with this particular woman as quickly as possible.
  • Both poems allude to the sun, but the allusion in Marvell’s poem is highly ironic, reminding us of God’s power (who literally can and did stop the sun in the Bible) in a way that undercuts the pretensions of the cocky speaker. In Herrick’s poem, there is very little irony, if any. The advice given by Herrick’s speaker would have alarmed no one in the seventeenth century, but many Christians in that period would have felt repulsed by the “lust” so blatantly expressed by Marvell’s speaker (line 30), with his crude sexual puns.



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