What is a syllogism and how does Marvell create syllogistic atmosphere in his poem "To His Coy Mistress?"

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A syllogism is a form of logic in which a conclusion appears to be logically derived from two axiomatic propositions. For example, if one proposition is that airplanes contribute to global warming and a second proposition is that global warming is dangerous, then the logical conclusion is that we should...

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A syllogism is a form of logic in which a conclusion appears to be logically derived from two axiomatic propositions. For example, if one proposition is that airplanes contribute to global warming and a second proposition is that global warming is dangerous, then the logical conclusion is that we should all try to reduce the number of flights we take.

In "To His Coy Mistress," the speaker tries to use syllogistic logic throughout the poem to convince a woman to have sex with him. For example, the speaker proposes that the woman is young and beautiful and that her youth and beauty will not last forever. The logical conclusion, he suggests, is that the woman should have sex with him while she can—while she is still beautiful enough to be desirable and while she is still young enough to be passionate.

The speaker also proposes that the woman's concerns for her virginity amount to nothing more than "quaint honour." He also proposes that he really does love her. The implicit, logical conclusion from these two propositions is that the woman should consent to lose her virginity to the speaker because virginity isn't something worth protecting and because, even if it were, there is no disgrace in losing her virginity to someone who really loves her.

Ostensibly, the speaker's syllogistic logic might appear convincing. However, examined more closely, his supposedly logical conclusions are of course only cynical attempts to convince a woman to have sex with him.

Indeed, using the same method of logic, one might propose that, because all cows have four legs as do most chairs, most chairs are, logically, cows. The speaker's logic in "To His Coy Mistress" is really no more logical than this. Unfortunately, however, we don't hear from the woman he is trying to convince, and so we have no way of knowing whether or not the woman is convinced by the speaker's arguments.

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The speaker is, essentially, attempting to convince his mistress to sleep with him. He speaks of his own lust, her individual physical attributes, her general beauty, her wasted virginity and "quaint honour" should she die before they have sex. He argues that they have limited time before "worms shall try / That long-preserved virginity" in the grave and his own lust turns to "ashes," and so they must make the most of their time (and, even more specifically, their youth). So why not "embrace" each other now, while they have "willing soul[s]" and feel the "instant fires" of sexual passion? They cannot halt the passage of time, but they can certainly be sure to enjoy the time that they have before they die (or grow old). The speaker sets up the poem's syllogistic atmosphere, then, as follows:

  1. If we were immortal, then you could be coy, and we could take our time and delay our lovemaking indefinitely.
  2. But we have limited time, and, before we know it, your beauty will fade and my lust will die.
  3. Therefore, your coyness is preventing us from enjoying each other while we can.

It is as though the speaker makes the woman he addresses responsible for a terrible waste: if she squanders her youth and beauty, then it will be wasted for ever. Of course, for him, the only way for her to make the most of it is to sleep with him.

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A syllogism is a logical argument in which one conclusion is derived from two or more propositions. For example, 

All humans breathe oxygen.  (All A is B)

Truman is a human.              (All C is A)

Truman breathes oxygen.      (All C is B) 

In "To His Coy Mistress," the three propositions of the syllogism are divided presented in the three stanzas. In the first stanza, the speaker supposes that he and his mistress could love each other indefinitely. His mistress is so wonderful that he would praise her for an incredibly long or maybe even infinite amount of time. 

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part, 

In the second stanza, the speaker realizes that humans don't live forever and although the grave is a private (intimate) place, it is a place where "none I think do there embrace." In other words, there love will end when their lives do. 

In the third stanza, the speaker concludes that since he and his mistress are mortal, they will make the most of their time. 

And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power. 

The syllogism could be stated as follows: 

If time stood still, we could love each other forever. 

But time flies, and we will not live that long. 

Therefore, we must make the most of the fleeting time that we do have. 

Note how the key words "had," "but," and "now" introduce each of the propositions. 

"Had we but world enough, and time," 

"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;" 

"Now, therefore . . . let us sport us while we may;" 

 

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