To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

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What happens in To His Coy Mistress?

In "To His Coy Mistress," the speaker attempts to convince his beloved to act on her passion. He begins by extolling her beauty and declaring that, if he had the time, he would devote himself to loving her. Since they don't, he argues, they must act while they are still young and beautiful.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker tells his beloved how much he adores her, declaring that, if he had all the time in the world, he would spend it worshipping her body.

  • In the second stanza, the tone of the poem changes, and the speaker states that they don't have all the time in the world and that he would to see her die a virgin.

  • In the third and final stanza, the speaker complete his argument by effectively stating that they won't be young forever and should take advantage of it while they can.

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Summary

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. 

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

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,168 words.)