Andrew Marvell: Poems Summary and Analysis
To His Coy Mistress
The poem is spoken by a male lover to his female beloved, as an attempt to convince her to sleep with him. The speaker argues that the Lady’s shyness and hesitancy would be acceptable if the two had “world enough, and time.” But because they are finite human beings, he thinks they should take advantage of their sensual embodiment while it lasts.
He tells the lady that her beauty, as well as her “long-preserved virginity,” will only become food for worms unless she gives herself to him while she lives. Rather than preserve any lofty ideals of chastity and virtue, the speaker affirms, the lovers ought to “roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball,” by which he means the physical bodies combined in the act of love making.
The poem is written in the classical tradition of a Latin love elegy, in which a speaker praises his mistress or lover through the motif of carpe diem, or “seize the day.” The poem also reflects the tradition of the erotic blazon, in which a poet constructs elaborate images of his lover’s beauty by carving her body into parts. Its verse form is rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter, proceeding as AA, BB, CC, and so forth.
The speaker begins by constructing a thorough and elaborate conceit of the many things that he “would” do to honor the lady properly, if the two lovers indeed had enough time. He posits impossible stretches time during which the two might play games of courtship, saying he could love her ten years before the moment of the biblical flood narrated in the Book of Genesis, while the Lady could refuse his advances up until the “conversion of the Jews,” meaning the day of Christian judgment prophesied for the end of times in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.
The speaker then uses the metaphor of a “vegetable love” to suggest a slow and steady growth that might increase to vast proportions, perhaps encoding a phallic suggestion. This would allow him to praise his lady’s features – eyes, forehead, breasts, and heart – in increments of hundreds and even thousands of years, which he says that the lady clearly deserves due to her superior stature. He assures the Lady that he would never value her at a “lower rate” than she deserves, at least in an ideal world where time was unlimited.
The device he uses to praise the lady’s beauty through such individual features is an erotic blazon, which also evokes the influential techniques of 15th and 16th century Petrarchan love poetry. Petrarchan poetry depends upon rarifying and distancing the female beloved, making her into an unattainable object. But the speaker here uses these devices only to suggest that such distancing from his lover is mindless, because the two beings in fact do not have the limitless time necessary for the speaker to praise the Lady sufficiently. He therefore constructs an erotic blazon only to assert its limited futility.
Hence, the poem’s mood shifts in line 21, and the speaker asserts that “Times winged chariot” is always near. The speaker’s rhetoric changes from an acknowledgement of the Lady’s limitless virtue, to an insistence upon the radical limitations of their time as embodied beings. Once dead, he assures the Lady, her virtues and her beauty will lie in the grave along with her body as it turns to dust. Likewise, the speaker imagines his lust being reduced to ashes, and the chance for the two lovers to join sexually shall be lost forever.
The third and final section of the poem shifts into an all-out plea and display of poetic prowess that attempts to win the Lady over. He compares the Lady’s skin to a vibrant layer of morning dew that is animated by the fires of her soul, and encourages her to “sport” with him “while we may.” Time devours all things, the speaker acknowledges, but he nonetheless asserts that the two can in fact turn the tables on time. They can become “amorous birds of prey” that actively consume the time given to them through passionate lovemaking.
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