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To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

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How does Andrew Marvell's poem "To his Coy Mistress" employ both hyperbole and understatement and what are their effects on the reader?

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In the first two lines, we find the poem's first example of hyperbole, or overstatement. The speaker says,

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

The speaker implies that the lady to whom he speaks is committing a crime by being coy with him. In other words, she is being playfully flirtatious but, ultimately, refuses to sleep with him. By implying that her behavior is criminal, the speaker is setting a rather playful, even humorous mood. Obviously coyness isn't illegal, and so this is a clear example of hyperbole to suggest that it is. We might also chuckle at the speaker's clear sexual frustration.

Further, the speaker says that, if they had all the time in the world, then

[His] 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.

These lines present further examples of hyperbole. The speaker says that, if time were not a consideration for him and his lover, he would allow his love to grow slowly, and it would grow bigger than empires. He would dedicate a century to praise her eyes and forehead, four centuries total for her breasts, and so on. These examples of hyperbole, concerning empires and suggesting that he would spend literal centuries to admire various parts of her person, end finally with the claim that he would spend an "age" to admire her heart. Their effect, then, is to impact the reader with the speaker's affection. There may be some playfulness and humor, but it does seem as though the speaker earnestly cares for his lover.

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Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” contains examples of both hyperbole and understatement.  Instances of both traits include the following:

  • In line 2, the speaker seems to suggest, hyperbolically, that the lady’s refusal of his advances amounts to a “crime.”
  • Hyperbole appears again when the speaker suggests that the lady might

. . . by the Indian Ganges’s side

. . . rubies find . . .  (lines 5-6)

  • The speaker’s promises about the long-lasting nature of his love (lines 7-10) are clearly hyperbolical.
  • Practically all the phrasing in lines 11-18 is hyperbolical, including the references to the vastness of his love, the promise to spend a century praising her eyes and forehead, the promise to spend two more centuries praising her breasts, and the obviously exaggerated reference to “thirty thousand” years.
  • The statement in line 25 that her “beauty shall no more be found” might be considered an understated way of saying that she will grow ugly as she ages and will eventually die.
  • The reference, in lines 27-28 to worms trying her “long-preserved virginity” may be an understated (if quite disgusting) way of expressing his sexual frustration.
  • The pun on “quaint” is line...

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  • 29 is an understated way of making a sexualallusion.
  • The reference to “sport” in line 37 might be considered an understated way of saying “have sex.”
  • The use of the word “all” in line 41 is, almost by definition, an example of hyperbole.
  • The use of the verb “tear” in line 43 also sounds hyperbolic.

Hyperbole is used far more obviously in this poem than understatement is, partly to emphasize the pride, foolishness, and exaggerated confidence of the speaker. Each time speaker speaks hyperbolically (one might argue) we are meant to smile and perhaps even laugh. It is hard to take the speaker nearly as seriously as he takes himself.

Although this poem is sometimes read as if Marvell sympathizes with the male speaker, many critics see the poem as an ironic indictment of the speaker’s foolish “lust” (a word he himself uses in line 30).

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