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.

Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

In addition to Andrew Marvell’s use of the syllogistic form, his use of contrast, and the repetition of the monosyllabic “Now” to give the last section a feeling of urgency, much of the power of the poem is also achieved through Marvell’s use of imagery. The exotic, distant, flowing Ganges is contrasted with the down-to-earth, hometown, tidal Humber. The rich and majestic ruby, which is to gems what the sun is to the planets and the king to the rest of society, is contrasted with the lowly, pastoral love complaint. “Vegetable” love refers to the vegetative, or growing, capacity of the soul of plants or animals, which must take time to reach normal growth and would need much longer to grow “Vaster than empires.” The most celebrated image of the poem, “Time’s wingéd chariot,” combines the image of speed with harassment and gains even more power by being contrasted with the sterility of “Deserts” and the stark stillness of “vast eternity.” The propriety of the image of devouring worms in a love poem (as well as the possible allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in “quaint honor”) has been questioned, but the worms certainly work well in the creation of a sense of urgency in the poem. So also does the contrast in the images of eating: the eager appetite of the “amorous birds of prey” pitted against the slow, trapped, defeated helplessness of being devoured, slow bite by slow bite, in the lazy-but-powerful jaws of time.

There is a declaration of unity and even mutuality, should the hoped-for culmination of his pleading be reached, in the image of their sweetness and their strength (not her sweetness and his strength) being rolled up tightly into one ball. The image increases in vitality and strength (hinting at a more fitting end to virginity than a congregation of politic worms) as this ball tears through the gates of life. There is power in the oxymoronic mixing of toughness, strife, and iron with pleasures and the fertility of the gates of life. The final image of the sun standing still could possibly be an allusion to Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still so he could finish the day’s slaughter in battle but is more likely an allusion to Zeus performing the same feat to extend by twenty-four hours his night with the lovely Alcmene in the pleasant task of engendering Hercules. Perhaps this final couplet, which some editors separate from the last section of the poem, merely suggests, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Other technical felicities include Marvell’s creation of sounds to fit the sense of the poem. The alliteration of “long love’s day” combines with the use of long vowels and diphthongs to create the feeling of slow time in the first section of the poem, despite its quick succession of images. The repeated, aspirated h sounds and the ch sound in “chariot” almost make the reader feel the rushing of wind that accompanies the beating of wings. In the last section of the poem, the combination of liquid l’s and the long back-of-the-mouth vowels suggests the action of rolling something up: “Let us roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up into one ball.” The sudden shift to frontal vowels and the onomatopoeic “tear” provides an abrupt shift as the ball takes on the characteristics of a cannonball. The effective use of variations in the rhymed iambic tetrameter rhythm also adds to the experience of meaning by correlating sound with sense. Note the use of spondees in “Love you ten years,” “last age,” “roll all,” “rough strife,” and “Stand still.” Another rhythmic effect that underscores the meaning of the words is the use of an occasional accented first syllable coming after an enjambment ending in a long vowel that crescendos into the accent. Especially effective are “I would/ Love you” (lines 7 and 8), “should grow/ Vaster” (lines 11 and 12), “I always hear/ Time’s” (lines 21 and 22), and “before us lie/ Deserts” (lines 23 and 24).


(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Bradbrook, M. C., and M. G. Lloyd Thomas. Andrew Marvell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1940. Places “To His Coy Mistress” among Marvell’s other poems of desire, with useful comparisons to the poet’s mower songs and “The Definition of Love.”

Brooks, Cleanth. “Andrew Marvell: Puritan Austerity with Classical Grace.” In Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, edited by Maynard Mack and George deForest Lord. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Discussion of “To His Coy Mistress” and “The Garden” as companion poems offering complementary points of view.

Eliot, T. S. “Andrew Marvell.” In Selected Essays. New ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950. A famous piece of modern literary criticism, Eliot’s essay is credited with recovering Marvell from his status as a minor metaphysical poet. Eliot examines the poem for its ironic wit and incongruous imagery.

Legouis, Pierre. Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. Clear overview of “Marvell’s most erotic poem,” citing not only classical and later examples of carpe diem verse but also Marvell’s departures in tone and persona.

Marvell, Andrew. Andrew Marvell: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Edited by Frank Kermode and Keith Walker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Textual and manuscript notes to the poem, explaining the sources of various images and allusions, as well as comparing specific lines to those of Marvell’s contemporaries or poetic forbears.