In Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress," how does each division differ in terms of tone and imagery?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress," there are three different and specific sections presented in the speaker's argument, addressed to the young woman who is the object of the poem.

In the first stanza, the tone is somewhat sarcastic. If we had all the time in the world we could do these things: she could collect rubies and he could waste his time complaining of home. They could love for countless years (reference to Flood and Jewish conversion), and he could worship her body for more than thirty thousand years. The images used are excessive. Once again, the Flood (and he adds ten years to that), and the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. His love like a plant could grow larger than empires (this is also excessive). He would love various parts of her body for an exceptionally long period of time. This is all based, of course, on the argument that time is not an issue at all.

In the second stanza, the tone changes. Here the speaker announces that time IS of the essence: there is not an endless supply of years before them. The only thing the passage of time will guarantee them if they don't act, is death and decay. It is a dead-end if they fail to act. Images here talk about the marble vault (a burial chamber, cold and final); he speaks of the worms doing their job to return the body to dust, as well as her virginity and honour.

Finally, the tone shifts once again: the speaker is almost beguiling...still trying to make some headway with his "coy mistress." One can imagine him whispering in her ear, with a low and convincing tone of voice. The language becomes more animated and energetic as the speaker puts forth his final argument. He almost says, let's forget walking, let's run straight toward sharing our desires with each other. Images in this stanza include a reference to her skin which is like the morning dew (a lovely compliment). Another image refers to "amorous birds of prey:" they should act as those birds do, and rather than tearing into each other, tear into (and devour, use) the time that stands before them rather than wasting it. The last image is that of the sun and its "keeping of the passing time," as people measure the time as it goes by, by the rising and setting of the sun.

The speaker's argument starts with a casual approach, with as much energy as a warm summer afternoon. Nothing is moving and she is in no hurry. He is subtle and persuasive, but speaks mostly of "if time were no issue."

In the second stanza, the poet is now using logic to appeal to this woman, in order to convince her to change her mind: death comes to everyone, and then we turn to dust. There is no fun left at that point.

The last stanza is more animated. The "Carpe Diem" motto of the Cavalier poets is seen here: seize the moment—it's now! Let's throw ourselves into this. The energy is higher and the momentum is increasing in this stanza as he pushes her to "just go for it." This stanza has the feeling of a pep talk.

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