To His Coy Mistress Themes

The main themes in “To His Coy Mistress” are the brevity of youth and carpe diem.

  • The brevity of youth: The poem’s speaker emphasizes that the age of youth, passion, and beauty is short.
  • Carpe diem: The poem is emblematic of the carpe diem tradition in English verse; in Latin, the phrase means “seize the day.” The speaker argues that, in light of mortality, his mistress should submit to their shared passion.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

The Brevity of Youth 

In “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker begins his argument to his mistress for the immediate consummation of their relationship by imagining an alternative reality. His mistress is being coy, and he demonstrates his appreciation for a long, slow courtship in which

[They] would sit down,...

(The entire section contains 702 words.)

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The Brevity of Youth 

In “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker begins his argument to his mistress for the immediate consummation of their relationship by imagining an alternative reality. His mistress is being coy, and he demonstrates his appreciation for a long, slow courtship in which

[They] would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass [their] long love’s day.

In a world with infinite time, he imagines, his beloved could leisurely stroll by rivers across the world and refuse his advances till the end of time. He would gladly pass “an age at least” admiring every part of her body and finally her heart, for this is what she deserves. 

However, this is only a fantasy, for “Time’s wingèd chariot [is] hurrying near.” The speaker perceives Time as a threat that is constantly chasing him and his mistress toward the “vast eternity” of death, which he implies dwarfs their time on earth. Marvell contrasts the timeless fantasy of the first stanza with a sense of urgency in the second, in which he describes the lovers’ deaths in detail. It will not be long before the mistress’s “long-preserved virginity” will be decomposed by worms in her grave, the speaker asserts. He wishes to move on to a physical relationship with her while she exhibits a “youthful hue,” which he likens to “morning dew,” implying the ephemerality of youth. 

Carpe Diem

In the poem, the speaker’s main objective is to persuade his lover to “seize the day” and give up her coy attitudes. The speaker says that he would court her slowly if there were time, but the couple does not have that luxury, because life is short. The speaker conveys his urgency through unusual and slightly morbid images of death and the grave, and through his personification of Time as a predator. He also depicts immediate submission to desire as victorious, for through this, he asserts, the lovers will defeat Time. 

The speaker’s statement “now let us sport us while we may” in the third stanza is the clearest demonstration of the carpe diem theme. In addition, his ironic comment that

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace

argues that if his mistress refuses him for much longer, it will be too late. Throughout the poem, the speaker argues that there is no time like the present for the lovers to indulge in their passions.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

“To His Coy Mistress” is a sublime example of a carpe diem poem, a Latin phrase meaning “seize the day.” This poem is to the genre what the lion is to the animal kingdom or the oak to the vegetable kingdom: the top. Robert Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds” is superbly lyrical but lacks this poem’s depth. Ben Jonson’s “Come, my Celia” is perfect in form and music but does not have the same vitality. Edmund Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose” exquisitely exploits the use of a single image but does not have the intensity of Marvell’s poem.

Seduction is the theme of practically every carpe diem poem, and each uses the theme of time as a means to an end. One of the many excellencies that distinguish Marvell’s poem from others is the careful integration of time and seduction, so that it is not clear which is the predominant theme: The two are one. Time hovers over the first section of the poem in its slow counting of the years ideally available for one to express love. Time threateningly enters the second section of the poem, relentlessly reminding those who would love that a long postponement of joy means no joy at all. Time moves into the present tense in the third section, obliterating a dried-out past and a sterile future in the intensity of now, the only time in which willing lovers discover themselves and achieve fulfillment. In the final couplet of the poem is its final reversal: Time no longer controls lovers, but they gain dominion over time—not as fully as a god such as Zeus perhaps, to make it stand still, but time speeds through its course at the command of lovers.

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