To His Coy Mistress Characters
The speaker, arguably Marvell himself, is a lover who is attempting to convince his virgin mistress to submit to him sexually. He is ever conscious of “Time’s wingèd chariot” at his back—that is, he perceives that time is passing quickly and that life is short. The speaker flatters his mistress, indulging in a fantasy in which he admits that she deserves an infinite lifetime of praise and acknowledges that her coyness would be warranted if the lovers had infinite lifespans: it would be his pleasure to adore every part of her “for an age at least” if they had “but world enough and time.” However, he urges his mistress to recognize that this is not the world they live in. Time is moving inexorably onward, and if his mistress does not submit to him soon, they may never be able to consummate their love. He is insistent that the only way to outwit time is to “sport” while they are young and derive what joy they can from their love and lust.
As Marvell makes clear from the poem’s title and opening lines, the speaker’s mistress is “coy” and is refusing his sexual advances. Because the poem is written from the speaker’s point of view, readers see the mistress through his eyes: he perceives her as beautiful and worthy of infinite admiration and praise. In the second stanza, the nature of her coyness is made more explicit, and the speaker explains that she is still in possession of her “long-preserved virginity” and “quaint honour.” The speaker’s description of her honor as “quaint” is significant, for it demonstrates his perception of her as not only coy but also old-fashioned in her refusals.
Because the mistress does not speak in the poem, it is impossible to know if the speaker’s description of her is reliable. Is she really in love with the speaker, as he believes, resisting him only because she takes pride in her virginity and wishes to make him wait? Or does the speaker mistake her disinterest in him for coyness?
Time is personified by the speaker as the lovers’ adversary: the speaker suggests that it moves more quickly than his mistress realizes. According to the speaker, Time rides a “wingèd chariot” in constant pursuit of them and will soon chase them to their graves. By indulging in their passions and desires now, he claims, they will be able to defeat time; predator will become prey, and they will “make [Time] run.”