Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

“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.