man and women intimately close in the starry night sky with an infinity sign below them

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

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In "To His Coy Mistress," what does the speaker mean by describing his mistress as "coy"?

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The speaker in "To His Coy Mistress" is trying to persuade the woman he's addressing to stop being coy—meaning specifically that she should stop being shy about sex. Even more specifically, he wants her to stop being shy about having sex with him.

In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker says that the woman's coyness wouldn't be a problem if they had all the time in the world. He says that, if they did have all the time in the world, he would gladly spend as much of that time as she wanted in wooing her. He says he would spend a "hundred years . . . to praise / (her) eyes" and "Two hundred to adore each breast." The implication is that the woman has perhaps told him that she is not ready to have sex with him, possibly because he has not proven to her yet that he really loves her. In the first stanza, the speaker tries to reassure the woman that this is not the case.

In the second stanza, the speaker says that—although he would gladly woo her and convince her of his love for years if he could—he can't because his time is finite. Indeed, he says that he can always hear "Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near." He says that if she is always so shy (or coy) about having sex with him, then eventually they will both be too old to enjoy sex anyway: her "beauty shall no more be found" and her "long-preserved virginity" will be wasted on the worms in the grave.

In the third stanza, the speaker tries to convince the woman that they should take advantage of their youth before time—their common enemy—takes it away from them. He frames her coyness as an "affront" to (or a waste of) their youth, as well as a surrender to "the slow-chapped power" of time.

This poem was written in the seventeenth century when a woman was expected to preserve her virginity until she was married. A woman who had sex before or outside of marriage was considered a "fallen woman"—or an outcast who was no longer fit for marriage. In this context, the coyness of the woman addressed in this poem therefore seems perfectly reasonable.

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"Coy" is a word that entered English as a descendant of Old French "coi," which means quiet or retiring. In English, however, it quickly took on another nuance. Almost invariably applied to women, the word "coy" connotes a sort of affected modesty which is really concealing a desire which the woman is pretending isn't there. For such a small word, "coy" implies a lot. In describing his mistress as coy, the speaker is here suggesting that her supposed shyness or modesty is simply a front. In reality, a woman who is coy is simply leading on her lover, making herself as alluring as possible through this pretense of modesty and being uninterested.

In the poem, the speaker is trying to persuade his mistress that such coyness is a waste of time, and that she should give in to her desires and sleep with him. However, the modern reader can detect a lot that is problematic in the speaker's assumptions. What if his mistress isn't being coy at all? What if she doesn't reciprocate his desires as he believes she does?

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