Please provide a summary and analysis of "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the face of the general nature of your inquiry, "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell is a fine and extremely well known "Carpe Diem" poem, written during the time of the Cavaliers in the reign of Charles I of England. Before the religious Puritan leaders, such as Cromwell, overthrew him, his court lived by this "seize the day" motto—nothing was certain in life, so live only for today. You can imagine that the very strict Puritans felt this was sinful living at its worst.

However, for the time that these poets were writing, it was all about instant gratification. In this poem, the speaker is trying to convince a young virgin to sleep with him: his argument is that life is too short.

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

If life went on forever, the speaker says, playing "hard to get" would not be a problem. He would love her (he says) longer than time itself, and she could say "no" indefinitely:

I would

Love you ten years before the Flood;

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

They could spend endless days doing whatever they pleased if time were not an issue. He would praise her forever if time were not so short. But he tells the woman that time (which he personifies) is flying by and that they cannot waste it:

But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near...

He reminds her that after time has gone, the only thing left is old age...and eternity. After death, refusing to yield her virginity to him will leave it to the abiding dust as her body decays over the years. Perhaps even sardonically, he speculates that the grave ends every essence of life, even a lover's embrace:

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none I think do there embrace.

He infers that while they are young and she is beautiful, now is the time to love with abandon, to forget what society expects, and love each other now.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball;

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life.

The speaker notes that while they cannot outrun time, they can move fast enough that he (time) must run to keep up with them.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run. 

Carpe diem poetry is very clear in its message. It...

...expresses a philosophy that recognizes the brevity of life and therefore the need to live for and in the moment.

This sentiment reflects the need to live for today—a theme reflected in countless other songs, poems, stories, etc., over the ages. The theme of this poem is very much like Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time." His poem begins with this stanza...

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old time is still a-flying :

And this same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying. 

Frank Sinatra, in Forget Domani, sang, "Let's forget about tomorrow for tomorrow never comes." The term "tempus fugit" means "time flies," and this is a central aspect of the carpe diem theme.

Marvell's message is not the first of its kind or the last: his desire is to convince a young virgin to yield to his advances, arguing that time is short: life is short. He advises her to make the most of the relatively short time they have together.

Additional Source:

Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.

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To His Coy Mistress

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