In his famous pastoral elegy titled “Lycidas,” as in so many of this other works, John Milton treats the problem of death in Christian terms. The end of life on earth is merely the beginning of a different kind of life, either in heaven or in hell, and the latter sort of existence, unlike earthly life, is everlasting. In “Lycidas,” Milton emphasizes the positive kind of afterlife associated with existence with God in heaven. In contrast, the speaker of Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” thinks (at least near the end of his poem) of earthly death as the final, ultimate cessation of life. Milton’s focus in “Lycidas” is on the spiritual pleasures of heavenly eternity; the focus of the speaker in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is on the trivial, physical pleasures of the here and now.
It’s important, in fact, not to confuse the attitudes of Marvell’s speaker with those of Marvell himself. Marvell may or may not have endorsed the worldly views of his poem’s speaker: there is very good reason to believe that he did not. The poem can in fact be read as clever, ironic mockery of the foolish, worldly speaker – a speaker who, by the time the poem ends, has openly confessed that what he feels for the woman is not so much genuine love as naked “lust” (30). Early in the poem, the speaker refers to “the conversion of the Jews” (10), which, according to Christian teachings, was supposed to take place immediately prior to the Last Judgment. By the second half of the poem, however, the speaker is imagining “Deserts of vast eternity” (24). In other words, he imagines an existence that ends with physical death, with nothing further beyond. The depiction of death in the second half of the poem thus contradicts the depiction of death in the first half. Marvell, as a committed Christian, would have believed that the depiction of death in the first half of the poem (death ending in a Last Judgment of sin by God) is the correct depiction. The lustful speaker is later deluding himself if he imagines eternity as nothing but a huge, empty desert.
Milton (whose vision of the afterlife in Paradise Lost was endorsed in a splendid poem by Marvell himself) presents, in “Lycidas,” standard Christian teachings about death. Thus, in lines 78-84 he celebrates the afterlife in heaven with God as something far greater and more satisfying than any mere earthly fame. Likewise, toward the end of his poem he openly declares that “Lycidas . . . is not dead” (166) – at least not spiritually. Lycidas’ physical body may have drowned, but his soul or spirit has
. . . mounted high,
Through the dear might of him [that is, Christ] that walked the waves . . . (172-74)
hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love . . . (176-77)
Milton openly celebrates the Christian idea of life after death. Marvell, one might argue, celebrates the same idea in a different way: by ironically mocking a lustful, foolish speaker who has lost his focus on heaven and on eternal life.