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June 10, 2017

To His Coy Mistress as a Love Poem


Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) is a strong embodiment of the transitions that came over the English society in the course of the 17th century. Marvell is deemed by many as one of the greatest love poets and is praised extravagantly for his Metaphysical wit and finely balanced lyric verse. His love poems generally deal with the spiritual as well as the carnal properties of love. The following commentary attempts to undertake a critical inquiry into his attitude towards love along with a special reference to his most celebrated poem To His Coy Mistress.

To His Coy Mistress

Marvell’s romantic tour-de-force To His Coy Mistress is a rigorous representation of the spiritual and physical aspect of love.  It is a great poem on carpe diem tradition wherein we are confronted with a passionate speaker or lover who is requesting his beloved to forsake her shyness or modesty and submit herself to his embraces. The lover repeatedly offers a series of arguments in support of his proposition. With thoughtful wit and humour he justifies that human life is essentially short-lived and thus it is wise to gratify sexual passion while they still have time at their disposal. Hence, he appeals to his beloved to stop the lingering and expedite the pleasures of the flesh.

In the very beginning of the poem spiritual courtship is presented with a similar style and manner found in the poems of Petrarch. This is noted especially when the lover commends his beloved’s physical beauty. Just akin to a typical Petrarchan lover, the speaker praises the beauty of his beloved’s eyes and limbs in an extravagant manner:

“A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
 But thirty thousand to the rest;”

Afterwards, the speaker’s spiritual love subsides and he tends towards physical relationship. This urge for physical love has been reinforced through the carpe diem concept. By presenting the images of death and decay the speaker tries to justify the futility of resistance towards carnal pleasure:

“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:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”

Through the above coarse imagery the speaker throws an implication towards his beloved to sacrifice her virginity to him rather than foolishly saving herself for the "worms" when buried. Then he also adds that after demise her virginity will be transformed into dust along with her body. He further adds that although the grave is a peaceful place none does make love there. Hence, death would definitely cease their opportunity to make love.

Then the lover draws a conclusion to his arguments by stating that they won't be young forever and thus should take advantage of it while they can. To emphasise the aforesaid statement he makes the following comparison which is quite animalistic and hints at his barely-controlled desires:

“Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour”

Here the lover becomes extremely impatient and passionately requests his beloved to “seize the day” and enjoy the present moment. The poet advises his beloved not to wait for death and urges her to gratify the pleasure of love like amorous birds.

Soon the lover moves away from all the negativities and reaches the zenith of his passion when he invites his beloved to have the pleasure of the flesh. He maintains that physical intercourse is the way to enter into another world, a way to break out of the confinement of time. He also feels that bringing the "strife" of life into the bedroom will enhance the sexual experience:

“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 end of the poem the lover appears somewhat calmer since he admits that sex is a compromise. He also admits that sex cannot be employed to stop time but they can use it to make time go faster:

“Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

To conclude, Andrew Marvell did an outstanding job in presenting the heart-felt emotions of a passionate lover from both spiritual and physical point of view. Although certain images seem a bit coarse and vulgar, To his Coy Mistress is still able to receive the reader’s admiration due to the speaker’s intense devotion to his beloved. Thus it won't be an overstatement if we call it one of Marvell's best love poems.

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