How does Andrew Marvell's poem "To his Coy Mistress" employ both hyperbole and understatement and what are their effects on the reader?
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 29 is an understated way of making a sexual allusion.
- 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).