man and women intimately close in the starry night sky with an infinity sign below them

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

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What do the "iron gates of life" symbolize in "To His Coy Mistress"?

Quick answer:

The "iron gates of life" in “To His Coy Mistress” is a metaphor that represents the constraints of both time and social expectation. Marvell's speaker and his lover’s amorous encounter would defy or fight against the passage of time as well as the lady’s pure reputation.

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In “To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell's speaker implores his eponymous beloved to make love to him. Late in the poem, he makes the following entreaty:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life

Their pleasurable encounter would defy time and social convention. The image of “iron gates of life” serves as a metaphor for time and chastity.

Throughout the poem, Marvell stresses the urgency of lust, which is accentuated by the pressure of passing time. The couple has no time to waste with her acting “coy”—either being genuinely shy or pretending to be modest. They do not have the luxury of time to sing each other's praises endlessly or develop a “long love.” Indeed, if they allow “eternity” to encroach, her

beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;

Her physical “beauty” and protected maidenhood will no longer exist; instead, they will disappear with age and mortality. Her “quaint” or old-fashioned “honour,” or pure reputation, will crumble into meaningless dust.

Therefore, they should seize the day and make love now. Thus, ,the speaker calls for him and his beloved to summon their youthful energy (“strength”) and lust (“sweetness”).

The “iron gates of life” can represent both time and the social constraints that hinder the speaker's desired sexual encounter. Time’s inevitable, unceasing movement cannot be stopped; it is like a strong “iron gate” that limits humans' opportunities. However, the couple can break through or at least briefly defy this "iron gate" with a tryst. Alternately, the “iron gates of life” may represent a kind of social barrier protecting the lady’s aforementioned "honour." It is implied that there are social forces and constraints—perhaps those that would value chastity—working in opposition to the speaker's amorous intentions.

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