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.
- Desire and restraint: The poem centers around the speaker's wish to act on his desire and the beloved's preference for restraint.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
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 stroll with leisure 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 compromised 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,” again implying the ephemerality of youth.
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.
Desire and Restraint
The poem’s tension arises from the differing sensibilities of the speaker and his beloved. The speaker states his desire in straightforward terms and argues that he and his beloved should simply act on their passions: “Now let us sport us while we may,” as he says. By contrast, the beloved, as portrayed by the speaker, feels a measure of desire but chooses not to act on it. The reasons for this restraint are not explained in detail, but the speaker mentions the beloved’s “long-preserved virginity” and “quaint honour.” These lines indicate that the beloved feels she risks losing her status or standing by indulging in her sexual desires, and it is reasonable to assume that the speaker does not bear an equivalent risk. This indicates a difference in privilege between the two characters and goes a long way towards explaining their opposing stances.
It is also worth noting that the beloved’s supposed desire for the speaker (“thy willing soul”) is not certain, given that the entire account is presented from the speaker’s point of view. Thus, the possibility that the beloved feels less—or even no—desire for the speaker may also account for her restraint.