To His Coy Mistress Summary

Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a carpe diem poem in which the speaker attempts to convince his beloved to seize the day and act on her passion.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker reassures his beloved that he would spend forever courting her if he had the time.
  • In the second stanza, the speaker laments the brevity of life and darkly intones that death comes for everyone.
  • In the third and final stanza, the speaker completes his argument by urging his beloved to fight back against time and indulge her passions while she is still young.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is a carpe diem poem in which the speaker urges his mistress to submit to desire and sleep with him. He argues that if she continues in her coy behaviors, they will grow too old for love—and Time, whom Marvell personifies, will defeat them. 

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The poem is written in rhyming couplets and is divided into three stanzas. In the first, the speaker details what he would do if he and his lady had “but world enough, and time.” If they had infinite lifespans, he explains, it would not be a “crime” for her to be so coy. His love could stretch far into the past—“ten years before the flood”—and she could continue to refuse him “till the conversion of the Jews,” or the end of the world. The speaker would be able to grow his love for her “vaster than empires and more slow.” In a world without time, he would be able to spend “an age at least” admiring every part of her, from her body to her heart. He admits that this is the admiration and love that she deserves, and he would gladly give it to her if he could.

However, this is only a fantasy, as Marvell makes clear with the coordinating conjunction “but” at the beginning of the second stanza. The speaker is aware that “time’s winged chariot” is always in pursuit of the two lovers: each day that his mistress meets his advances with her coyness is a day closer to their deaths and ensuing entrances into “deserts of vast eternity.” In death, she will no longer be beautiful, and he shall no longer have the ability to praise her. Likewise, her “virginity” and “honour” (which she has sought to maintain), as well as his “lust,” will be food for worms and come to nothing. The grave, he remarks ironically, is a “fine and private place,” but not one in which people tend to “embrace.” 

The speaker suggests a solution to the problem of Time, signified by the transition “now therefore” at the beginning of the third stanza: the lovers should indulge in “sport” while they can, surrendering to their love while they still exhibit “the youthful hue.” They should passionately “tear [their] pleasures with rough strife”; in doing so, they can “devour” Time and “make him run.”

Summary

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Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

“To His Coy Mistress” is a witty exploration of the traditional carpe diem theme, and it can be read on several levels. On the surface, it functions extremely effectively as a lover’s argument in favor of pursuing pleasure. The speaker begins by assuring his lady that, “Had we but world enough, and time,” he would be well content to love her at a slow pace, devoting thousands of years to adoring each part of her. Time in this stanza is an agent of growth, as the speaker assures his beloved, “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow.” The initial stanza moves at a leisurely metrical pace as the speaker uses extravagant and playful images to persuade the lady of his devotion and his wish that he could love her with the slow thoroughness that she deserves.

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts to images of swiftly passing time to impress upon his love that they in fact do not have the leisure to love at this slow rate. “At my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” he says. Now time is destructive, and the meter moves rapidly. The speaker resorts to images of decay that are at once whimsical and frightening as he attempts to convince the beloved of the need to consummate their love in the present. Though images of death and decay are not unusual in carpe diem lyrics, Marvell’s images are particularly graphic and alarming: “in thy marble vault . . . / worms shall try/ That long-preserved virginity:/ And your quaint honour turn to dust.” The speaker employs dark humor as he ironically comments, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.”

The third stanza exhorts the beloved to action. While they are still young, able, and desirable, he urges, they should “sport” while they may, and “Rather at once our time devour,/ Than languish in his slow-chapped power.” By seizing the initiative and enthusiastically embracing life and pleasure, they can win a victory over destructive Time: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

As always, though, Marvell is aware of an equally compelling counterpoint to his argument, and he chooses ambiguous imagery to communicate it subtly. In the first stanza, Marvell uses explicitly religious terminology to describe the enormous length of time that he would like to devote to the wooing of his lady: “I would/ Love you ten years before the flood:/ And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of Jews” (it was a traditional belief that the Jews would convert to Christianity at the end of the world). Marvell thus evokes a specifically divine or eternal time frame, with overtones of judgment (the Flood was divine punishment for the human race’s corruption) and salvation.

Similarly, the following stanzas are studded with religious references. Marvell conjures up an image of the “Deserts of vast eternity” that lie before the lovers, an image that may spur his beloved to action in this life but may just as well remind her of her eternal afterlife. He argues that time will turn her honor to “dust” and his lust to “ashes,” suggesting the terminology of the Christian burial service. He refers to the way (in reality or perhaps merely in his hopes) that her “willing soul transpires/ At every pore with instant fires.” Conjoining images of souls and fires cannot help but suggest hellfire and eternal damnation.

The final stanza, in which he urges action, presents a problematic vision of love. He compares himself and his lover to sportive animals, specifically “amorous birds of prey,” an odd image to use in attempting to win his lady. The love that he describes seems rough and violent: He suggests that they “devour” their time and says, “Let us . . . / Tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Thorough the iron grates of life” (“thorough” here means “through”). The lines have a rather strange and unromantic ring and qualify the speaker’s ostensibly enthusiastic description of love. Love as described in this stanza is not conventionally sweet and sentimental but rather vaguely dangerous and threatening; beneath the surface, Marvell seems to be issuing a warning as much as an exhortation.

More than a love poem, “To His Coy Mistress” is a meditation on time and death. Marvell dramatizes the questions: What are the implications of physicality and mortality? In using time most wisely, should one focus on this life or the afterlife? Marvell avoids a simple, conventional answer, and the poem works well as an argument for either view.

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