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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How does the speaker in "To His Coy Mistress" reveal his character traits?

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As in most poetry one can learn more from the tone in which a poem is written—based on the choice of words and the manner in which they are put together—than from simply the literal meaning of the language used.

The tone of "To His Coy Mistress," in our parlance today, can be termed "laid back." Though the substance of the poem is that, to put it simply, a man is pleading with a girl to begin a relationship with him, his tone does not reveal any sort of agitation or urgency about it. We can imagine him, based on the way he phrases his requests to her, to be smiling gently, quite differently from either men who take a desperately passionate approach or those who use the desperately whining method of getting across their pleas. This is true even with the rather gruesome imagery he conjures up that

worms shall try

That long preserved virginity.

The finality with which he states that

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none there do, I think, embrace

has nevertheless a mild, regretful lilt to it. It's as if even if she says no, his attitude will happily be, "Oh, well, that's the way it goes," without bitterness or anger. Although one could charge him with displaying a manipulative attitude toward women.

An interesting commentary many decades ago by C.S. Lewis compares Marvell with his predecessor Donne, implying that, if I may paraphrase loosely, Marvell links himself to Donne's technique but does Donne one better by discarding the acerbic, desperate tone of Donne. The poem Lewis uses for his example is, unsurprisingly, "To His Coy Mistress." Lewis's larger point seems to be that Donne, unlike many of his contemporaries and successors, has not moved into the modern age in his attitude to women. This is a valid point, but Marvell conveys a much more progressive tone with regard to women, to life, and to the choices we're presented with, than not just Donne but many other poets of his age and later.

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