Is the poem "To His Coy Mistress" really about a woman, or is it about the English parliament?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was perhaps best known for his poem "To His Coy Mistress." For all its sexiness, the poem's blatant sexuality almost threatens to eclipse some of the political undertones in Marvell's Petrarchan language. As a poet, Marvell was celebrated for his often enigmatic style; he wrote Royalist poetry as well as poetry that could be construed as supportive of the parliamentarian firebrand Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell served during the reign of Charles I and was an MP (Member Of Parliament) for Huntington. Although both king and subject were staunch Protestants, Cromwell eventually became disillusioned with the king's love for showy ritual in religious worship. War with Scotland was waged over the king's insistence on imposing a High Church liturgy and prayer book in Scotland; this led to rebellion in Edinburgh in 1637. Charles, at odds with Parliament even in the best of times, had to lobby Parliament for money to fight his ill-fated war against Scotland. Parliamentarians like Oliver Cromwell despised the king's high handed ways in both religion and government.

And where does Andrew Marvell fit into all this? As an MP for Hull, he was in the thick of things; he was briefly tutor to Cromwell's nephew William Dutton in 1653, and assistant to Cromwell's Secretary of State from 1657 to 1660. The English Civil War pitted the hapless Charles I against the Machiavellian Oliver Cromwell, who established the New Model Army, rivaling that of Charles' royalist army. With the Reformation (16th–17th century) in full swing, a new awakening to freedom of worship and freedom from oppressive monarchic rule continued to grip much of England. You can see Marvell's admiration of Cromwell in his carpe diem style in this poem and his nod to Cromwell's religious fervor with the mention of the "conversion of the Jews."

Let me briefly explain: Cromwell was a supreme tactician and military commander; he was brutal in warfare, decisive, and shrewd. He gave Charles I no quarter, and won important victories for the Parliamentarians in the Battle Of Marston Moor (1644) and the Battle of Naseby (1645). The parliamentarians were determined to obliterate the absolute rule of the king; Charles believed he ruled by divine right. Cromwell's seize-the-day style of warfare is characterized in Marvell's poem:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue/ Sits on thy skin like morning dew,/And while thy willing soul transpires ;/At every pore with instant fires,/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.

On the other hand, one can read the poem as the helplessly obsessive love-letter of a sex-starved stalker who hopes to enjoy his mistress' "long-preserved virginity" before her "quaint honor turn(s) to dust." Why this ambiguity?

1) Marvell lived and served during a perilous time. The victor (whether Cromwell or Charles I) would have decided both Marvell's political fate as well as personal survival.

2) Although Marvell admired Cromwell's Machiavellian decisiveness, he disliked Cromwell's rigid Calvinism, which left no room for free will/choice. He also disliked Charles' absolute rule in matters of religion. Marvell's blatant sexual imagery in the poem craftily covered up Marvell's criticism of both Cromwellian dogmatism and royalist absolutism.

To read more about the ambiguity in Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," please refer to the links below. Hope this helps!

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