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To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is a carpe diem poem through which the speaker, who may be interpreted as Marvell himself, attempts to convince his mistress that they should sleep together while they are still young and beautiful. The poem is divided into three stanzas, the first of which is devoted to establishing the problem the speaker perceives and flattering his mistress. In the second and third stanzas, the speaker emphasizes the urgency of the matter and calls his mistress to action.

In the opening two lines, the speaker indirectly calls his mistress’s “coyness” a “crime”: he remarks that if they had more time, it would not be wrong for her to make him wait. Through imagery of rivers around the world (the Ganges in India and the Humber in England), he illustrates the “long love’s day[s]” that they could pass together if they had the time. Additionally, he demonstrates his hypothetical willingness to tolerate her coyness if their lifespan were longer by using biblical allusions: he states that his love for her would begin “ten years before the flood,” an event described in Genesis, and that she could continue to refuse him “till the conversion of the Jews,” an event that many Christians believe will signal the end of the world. He then flatters her with a literary blazon, claiming that if he had the time, he could devote “an age at least” to admiring every part of her body, such as her eyes, forehead, and breasts. His praise of her would culminate in admiration of her heart. 

Through all of this, the speaker seems to validate his mistress’s coyness, implying that her beauty should give her the right to be as coy as she chooses. However, as he begins to explain in the next twelve lines, they do not have the luxury of infinite time and cannot wait forever to move on to physical love. In this stanza, the speaker explains in greater detail the problem he hints at in the first two lines of the first stanza: his lady’s coyness is a “crime” because “Time’s wingèd chariot [is] hurrying near.” Time limits their lifespans and, therefore, the amount of time they can spend loving each other. It is in this stanza that the poem’s “carpe diem” theme comes into play. The speaker attempts to convince his mistress to disregard her “long-preserved virginity” and “quaint honour,” for all this will be nullified by death anyway. His description of her sense of honor as “quaint” is yet another appeal to logic, as he tries to convince her that it is old-fashioned and thus unnecessary. They should submit to their desires immediately, he explains, because death will steal away her beauty and his admiration and lust. 

In the third stanza, the speaker completes his syllogism by offering a solution to the problem of his mistress’s coyness and providing a greater sense of urgency. He attempts to persuade her to give up her coyness and “sport” while they are still passionate and exhibit “the youthful hue.” He uses several images with violent connotations to attempt to spur her to action, such as “birds of prey” and “tearing . . . pleasures with rough strife.” In approaching their relationship in this way, they can “make [Time] run.”

“To His Coy Mistress” exhibits several characteristics of the metaphysical poetic tradition. Metaphysical poets often use highly metaphorical diction and striking, unconventional comparisons and images to carry their argument, and this is certainly true of Marvell in this poem. Some of the most unusual images of the poem come in the second stanza, where the speaker illustrates death: he writes that “worms shall try” his mistress’s “long-preserved virginity” and that her “honour” and his “lust” shall turn to “dust” and “ashes.” The image of virginity and love decomposing in the grave is unusual, if not disconcerting. Additionally, the speaker uses violent imagery in the third stanza, suggesting that they “tear [their] pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life” and urging a passionate and arguably disturbing pursuit of pleasure. The violent diction in the final stanza comes across as surprising, especially considering the fact that the speaker aims to seduce his mistress. Because of its appeals to logic, unusual comparisons and images, and urgency, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is considered a quintessential example of both carpe diem and metaphysical poetry.

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