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.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvell’s best known poem, was composed at an unknown date and published posthumously in 1681. The poem is considered an exemplar of the carpe diem form, in which the speaker urges the addressee to act swiftly and boldly in pursuit of pleasure, given the fleeting nature of human life. In “To His Coy Mistress,” 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. The poem is written in rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter and is divided into three stanzas, indicated by indentations.
In the first stanza, the speaker details what he would do if he and his beloved 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,” a figure of speech meant to indicate the end of time. 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 that 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. After their time on earth has elapsed, they will enter 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.”
In the final stanza, the speaker suggests a solution to the problem of Time, signified by the transition “now therefore” at the beginning of the stanza: the lovers should indulge in “sport” while they can, surrendering to their love while they still exhibit “the youthful hue.” The speaker uses violent imagery to make this argument, comparing himself and his beloved to “amorous birds of prey” and encouraging them to “devour” Time and passionately “tear [their] pleasures with rough strife.” In doing so, they cannot stop Time, as represented by the sun, but they can “make him run.”