The term “metaphysical poetry” is not a term ever used by Andrew Marvell to discuss his own poems. In fact, none of the poets often called “metaphysical poets” ever classified themselves as such. That term was invented by later commentators to describe (often disparagingly) the style of such authors as Marvell and John Donne.
Two brief, reliable treatments of “metaphysical” poetry appear in The Cambridge Companion to Literature in English, edited by Ian Ousby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and in an essay by John D. Jump in Webster’s New World Companion to English and American Literature, edited by Arthur Pollard (New York: Popular Library, 1976). Here are some traits listed these books as typical of metaphysical poetry, followed by discussion of the appearance of those traits in “To His Coy Mistress.”
- “strenuous argument” (Jump 457): Such argument appears throughout the poem as the obsessive male lover tries to convince a reluctant woman to have sex with him. Argumentation is especially apparent in such lines as the following:
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power. (37-40)
- “a dramatic and colloquial mode of utterance” (Jump 457): This poem is dramatic not only in the literal sense (since the speaker addresses another person) but also in the figurative sense, since his phrasing is sometimes startling (as in lines 27-28).
- “urgent feeling” (Jump 457): Again, the entire poem displays this trait, but it is especially apparent in lines 21-32.
- “agile thought” (Jump 457): This trait is particularly obvious in the first stanza of the poem, in which the speaker quickly and easily shifts from one kind of imagined behavior to another.
- “pun[s]” (Jump 457): The most famous example of a pun in this poem is the play on the word “quaint” in line 29, where the word can mean “old-fashioned” but can also refer to female genitalia.
- “paradox[es]” (Jump 457): One example of a paradox is the speaker’s claim that he would love his lady “ten years before the Flood” (8) – obviously a temporal impossibility.
- imagery drawn from “widely varied fields of knowledge” (Jump 457): in the course of the poem, the speaker refers to India, England, very early history, the end of history, classical myth, Biblical teachings, the behavior of animals, human sexuality, and various other “fields of knowledge.”
- “serious wit” (Jump 457): The entire poem is witty in the sense that it displays the speaker’s cleverness, inventiveness, and skills at improvisation.
- metaphysical “conceit[s]” (Jump 457): No conceit (or extended metaphorical comparison) appears in this poem in the way that one appears, for instance, in lines 25-36 of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Nevertheless,Marvell’s ability to play at length with a single idea appears in lines 1-10 of his poem.
- “unification of thought and feeling” (Ousby 615): The entire poem exhibits this trait, since the entire poem uses reason to promote passion.
- “violation of decorum” (Ousby 615): It would be hard to think of a more blatant breach of expected, acceptable phrasing than lines 25-30.