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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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is a carpe diem poem in which the speaker, possibly a representation of Marvell himself, attempts to convince his mistress to sleep with him. He argues that if they do not begin a physical relationship soon, their time will run out; there is therefore no time for her coyness. However, the speaker persuades gently in the beginning by stating that, in another universe, he would fully understand his mistress’s attitude. 

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews. 

Had they all the time in the world, the speaker’s mistress could walk by the Ganges River in India in pursuit of treasure while the speaker protests her refusals from England. In this imagined scenario, the speaker’s love for her would form near the beginning of the biblical timeline, and she could refuse his advances until “the conversion of the Jews,” which many Christians believe will take place near the end of the world. 

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

After attempting to flatter his mistress and seeming to validate her coyness, the speaker brings his fantasy of timelessness to an end. He personifies Time, feeling it to be constantly chasing them in its “wingèd chariot”; they are being driven ever closer to their deaths and the barren “eternity” that lies there. This conveys a sense of urgency, as the speaker goes on to describe how soon the grave will find him and his lover. 

Thy 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.

In death, the relationship between the speaker and his mistress will be over. Her “beauty,” “virginity,” and “honour” will come to nothing, as will his “lust” and “song” of praise. He implies here that since all these things will be taken from them in death, they must begin their physical relationship while they have time. 

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

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.

In the third stanza, the speaker clarifies his solution to his mistress’s coyness: they should give in to their lusts and “sport” while they still can. As he sought to convey urgency and provoke action in the second stanza with images of their death, he seeks here to express the passion with which they should pursue pleasure through violent and perhaps animalistic imagery. 

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

At the end of the poem, the speaker cleverly inverts the balance of power in the situation. He presents his solution (an urgent consummation of their relationship) as a victory: if his mistress gives up her coyness and submits to his advances, they will be able to defeat Time itself.

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