The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The pattern of “To His Coy Mistress” is, as befitting an argument, roughly syllogistic in form: If there were enough time, the speaker and his mistress could go on courting forever, but time is fast disappearing. Therefore, they must squeeze their joys into today; there is no time to be coy or aloof.

In the first section of the poem, the speaker delineates exactly how he would use the vast expanse of time stretching from before Noah’s flood to the end of time itself. There would be time to sit and think, time to stroll in leisurely fashion along the banks of the Ganges casually looking for treasure, and time to write and sing long love lyrics while reclining by the slow tidewater of the Humber. He begins a catalog of his mistress’ attributes, a commonplace of Renaissance poetry, but then adds his own variation, in playful hyperbole assigning long periods of years to admire and praise eyes, forehead, and breasts. Then, as if anticipating the urgency of the next section of the poem, he breaks off his list and quickly assigns “thirty thousand to the rest.” The entire process culminates in the heart, the center not only of the body but also of her humanity, her personhood. Flattery is a natural part of the art of seduction, so there could well be a hidden agenda in the speaker’s declaration that his mistress’ beauty is worth at least thirty thousand years of praise, inch by inch, and there could be no better use of his time than to bestow it on her.

This reverie, however, comes to a sudden end as the poem swings into its next movement on the wings of a coordinating conjunction—“But”—introducing a contrast that echoes through the entire section. Time does not grant humans the leisure to stroll through eternity, but harries them with a winged war chariot at their backs. The “vast eternity” stretching before humankind is most reluctant to yield up its rubies but quite readily confines people to a marble vault. Love songs do not last forever but dwindle to nothing without even a hint of an echo. There is no beauty to praise for thirty thousand years (and no honor to defend), but, after the worms have done their work, only a sterile combination of her dust and his ashes, which might mix but could hardly embrace. In turbulent times, one might, for a moment, long for the peace and privacy of the grave, but the speaker’s purpose in the poem is a clue to the image’s lighthearted irony: The grave is altogether too private a place without a pair of warm bodies.

The final section of the poem also begins with a monosyllable that rings through the entire section: “Now.” The past yields up no time and the future is certainly but dust, so there is an urgent necessity to exploit the “youthful hue” that exists now. Now, the soul has a will and can choose. Now, the body exudes “instant fires.” Now, a couple may choose sport. Now, they decide whether they will be the birds of prey devouring time or the victims being slowly and laboriously eaten by the eternal predator, time.