In “To His Coy Mistress,” his most famous poem, Andrew Marvell follows many of the conventions of the carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) theme in poetry. This type of poem dates from ancient times and was made popular in English in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by such writers as Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Herrick. In such poems, typically, the speaker is an eager male lover lamenting the brevity of life to persuade his female listener to yield to his sexual advances. Thus a carpe diem complaint is perhaps best understood not as a love poem but as a lust poem.
Marvell adheres to this tradition in several ways, but he dispenses with the pastoral scenery and songlike lyrical quality typical of much carpe diem verse. Marvell cleverly invests this pagan argument (life is short and uncertain, so one must partake of all the pleasures one can) with somewhat melancholy Christian allusions. His poem is more ambitious as art than is the standard shepherd’s lament. Marvell frames the familiar urgings of the frustrated lover within three strictly organized verse paragraphs that resemble a three-part syllogism, a formula logicians use to demonstrate the validity of an argument. The argument in the poem concerns sexual gratification. The speaker’s premise in the first verse paragraph describes the rate at which he would woo the lady, given time enough to do so properly. In the second verse paragraph, the premise is the blunt fact of human mutability: Time is limited. In his conclusion, Marvell’s speaker resolves these conflicts—figuratively, at least.
Marvell’s poem’s originality of structure has contributed to the work’s being ranked as the epitome of carpe diem verse. Everything contributes to the speaker’s overall urgency. Marvell’s clipped, tetrameter (four-beat) rhymed couplets create a hurried pace. The poem begins, for example, with two closed couplets, or couplets of a single sentence each. This clipped beginning hints at urgency. As the speaker gains confidence, he loosens this form and uses more enjambment, running lines over into the following lines more often. By the third verse paragraph, he seems hardly to pause for breath at all. The variety of allusion, metaphor, and other figures of speech give the poem an exuberance appropriate to its theme.
As if to call attention to the fleetingness of time, the speaker opens with a terse, elliptical statement, not wasting even a syllable in his wooing. “Had we but world enough, and time” saves him from having to utter the only slightly longer “If we had,” and “This coyness, lady, were no crime” similarly condenses the more customary and conversational “would be no crime.” In this opening couplet, then, the speaker argues that time and distance—not his own impulsiveness or lust—are the primary enemies of love. If men and women had all eternity and all the world to devote to each other, “coyness” (her refusing his amorous suggestions) would hardly bother him. As it is, however, he deems coyness a crime against his emotions and her own—indeed, perhaps a crime against nature. He then offers examples of how, if immortal, they would pass their “long love’s day.” Part flattery, part display of his own inventiveness, wit, and learning, this catalog of praises follows the classical tradition of a list of charms designed to weaken the woman’s resistance and make her admirer’s advances more appealing.
Marvell’s speaker employs a wide range of such stratagems. He draws on geography, implying that the distance between two of the world’s rivers—the Ganges in India and the Humber in England—is somehow equal to the distance he feels lies between them as he makes this traditional lover’s complaint. From the tide of the Humber he moves to Noah’s flood (near the dawn of time) and then ahead to the “conversion of the Jews,” in Marvell’s day a proverbial reference to the end of the world. These allusions not only emphasize the infinitely slow “rate” at which his mistress deserves to be praised but also introduce the idea that her coyness is vaguely sacrilegious. The speaker’s “vegetable love” in line 11 is botanical (hence natural), historically significant (vaster and more lasting than empires), and personal in its physical, clinging aspect.
By the end of this first verse paragraph, the speaker has achieved an almost geological perspective of love, claiming that hundreds or thousands of years, even entire ages or eras of time, would be necessary to praise adequately his prospective lover’s beauty. That Marvell’s ardent speaker is careful to conclude that her “heart”—her inner beauty—demands the most attention of all indicates a shrewdness hardly compatible with the inarticulate throes of sincere affection. This is a poem of persuasion, after all. The speaker aims to disarm the lady further with an even more grandiose piece of flattery: “For, lady, you deserve this state;/ Nor would I love at lower rate.” This summation allows the speaker to make promises he knows he shall never be forced to keep, since, of course, the couple does not have all the world to range upon and all of time to spend.
Having professed his boundless love for her, the eager lover quickly contrasts what would be with what, unfortunately, must be: the eventual death of them both. Fittingly, this second part of the argument is the briefest, and it employs the starkest imagery found in the poem. This paragraph makes reference to ashes and dust, another subtle religious echo. The first part of the poem emphasizes lasting emotion, but the second turns grimly final before leavening these images with what might be the poem’s best couplet: “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.” The offhandedness of this quip is intentional. It keeps the mood from becoming too somber, as if the speaker knows he runs the risk of going too far. He seems almost to be reading his mistress’s expression for clues as he describes the process of bodily decay.
The word “embrace” sets the final section’s argument in motion. This argument is couched in the most urgent language of the poem. The section’s initial words—“Now, therefore”—provide the tone. The word “now” appears twice more in the following few lines, along with such synonymous terms as “at once.” The emphasis is on the fleetingness of the present moment: “while the youthful hue/ Sits on thy skin,” “while thy willing soul transpires,” “let us sport us while we may.”
Marvell chooses metaphors and similes that make the lovers seem almost ferociously passionate. The pores of the skin burn “with instant fires.” The lovers should become, he claims, like “amorous birds of prey.” They shall “devour” time, roll their combined strength and sweetness “up into one ball,” “tear” their pleasures with “rough strife,” and so on. Time, still the enemy of their love’s consummation, is defeated in the poem’s final paradox, as the speaker admits, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.” That is, since they have not the power to stop time, they might at least control it in another way; indulging in sexual pleasures will make time seem to pass more quickly. Also, making time run implies that lovers make the universe work.
Love’s other enemy, distance, is overcome as well in this last section. The first two parts of the poem deal mainly in “you” and “I” constructions, but Marvell concludes the poem with no fewer than ten first-person plural pronouns, emphasizing with grammatical subtlety the physical union the speaker desires with this lady. (Such pronouns occur only four times in all of the preceding thirty-two lines.) Then, too, the lovers are likened to birds of prey rather than the inert vine-and-wall relationship of the first section or the union of worm and corpse in the second section.
Further thematic shifts should be noted as well, such as the symbolic use of “rubies” and “marble” in the first and second paragraphs, respectively. The precious, deep-red stones denote tokens of affection and befit the early catalog of praises; likewise, the more common but still impressive marble seems in keeping with the mortality theme. Then, in the last section, these find their counterpart in another element, a metal: iron, a humble enough material, yet one that intimates the lovers’ earthbound reality. The speaker urges their passage through the “iron gates of life,” a telling contrast to the heavenly gates, the promise of which presumably forms the reason for the lady’s chastity.
For years, Marvell’s poem was taken to be a fairly typical instance of the courtly love poetry popular among English and European poets of this era. Recently, critics have pointed to the poem’s complex ambiguities as a hallmark of Marvell’s work in general. One need not, however, turn this seventeenth century Metaphysical poet into a mystery in order to appreciate this particular poem’s unique gusto and lyrical grace. Although it employs many features of the traditional lover’s complaint, “To His Coy Mistress” ranks above nearly all other carpe diem poems because of Marvell’s keen sense of irony, reversal, and strategic order. Perhaps the sharpest irony of all rests in the poet’s distinctive use of syllogistic structure, for as logically appealing as the speaker’s argument may be, Marvell could very well be reminding readers that, in matters of the heart, logic holds little sway.