“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.