What is the main point of the poem "To His Coy Mistress"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Time is central to this metaphysical poem of Andrew Marvell, who uses systematic reasoning in his poetic efforts to convince his lady love that they must carpe diem, or seize the moment. The stanzas form his argument:

  • In the first stanza, as the verse moves at a leisurely pace, the poet notes that if there were enough time for him to court his lade, his

              vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze

  • But, in the second stanza the meter becomes faster as the poet presents his argument that time is quickly passing, 

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

  • Therefore, in the third stanza the poet concludes that he and his paramour should seize the opportunities at hand--carpe diem--"sport us while we may." And, they should consummate their union of hearts by engaging in the physical pleasures of love:

Let us roll all our strength,...
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.

This syllogism, however, is flawed as it is built upon a false premise: Just because they are young and in love does not logically mean that they should not wait and, instead, consummate this relationship later rather than now. That there is an awareness of the salacious nature of his proposal is evident in the poet's use of religious allusions and imagery. For instance, he says that if time were not involved, he should love "Till the conversion of the Jews" and he would love her from ten years before the Flood.

Since this poem is actually built upon more than the spontaneity of the moment, it is, in fact a mediation on Time and the end, or death. But just because they are in love and time passes quickly does not preclude the lovers' morality, a fact that the poem subtly expresses in its earlier lines with the idea of resisting temptation expressed in hyperbole. ["I would/Love you ten years before the Flood."]

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