The speaker in "The Coronet" is a shepherd. He begins by stating that the crown of thorns on his “Saviour’s head” has been worn too long, and he seeks to “redress that wrong” through his verse. He goes about gathering flowers from “every garden” and dismantles the “fragrant tow’rs” that his mistress shepherdess once wore, all to fashion a new crown to glorify his savior, Jesus Christ. But once the speaker collects “all [his] store” and begins to weave the new crown, he finds that the “serpent old” has deceitfully hidden himself within the flowers, forming “wreaths of fame and interest.”
The speaker suddenly realizes that his task is “foolish” because he is attempting to use earthly means to construct his coronet, which can therefore only “debase” the glory of “Heaven’s diadem.” He then appeals to Christ, the only figure who “could’st the serpent tame,” asking his Savior either to undo the coronet’s “slipp’ry knots” or to destroy its “curious frame.” The poem concludes with the speaker suggesting that if Christ were to destroy the serpent’s power over the coronet, he could tread over the spoils of the serpent and coronet alike, which would “crown [Christ's] feet” since they are unfit to “crown thy head.”
The poem’s speaker is a shepherd who aims to rectify the Crucifixion by writing a poem that will serve as a new crown, or “coronet," of glory for Jesus Christ. Slowly, though, the shepherd comes to realize that the poem he is composing in an attempt to atone for the crucifixion is actually only embellishing the shepherd's own image. Traditionally, shepherds appear in poetry as symbols of the pastoral genre, speaking simply and directly. The shepherds' language is usually a direct contrast to the deceitful language of political intrigue and trickery. However, the language, imagery, and style of “The Coronet” are not at all simple and direct. Therefore, Marvell’s poem reworks traditional poetic conventions to emphasize the theme of Christian humility.
The versification of the poem is also complicated. Marvell embeds sonnets of different forms (Shakespearean, Petrarchan) within a larger rhyme scheme and utilizes several different meters (including iambic pentameter, tetrameters, and trimester). The complexity of the verse is an artful counterweight to the speaker's professed simplicity and the fact that he is a shepherd. At the beginning of the poem, the shepherd turns to his natural surroundings, gathering materials to weave a new crown. He takes flowers from the garden and even “dismantles” the “fragrant tow’rs” that his shepherdess once wore. His willingness to take from the shepherdess may at first imply his generosity towards Christ, but this moment can also be interpreted as an act of thievery.
When the shepherd has gathered his materials and begins to consider how to weave them into a “rich chaplet,” he realizes that upon “Thinking (so I myself deceive).” In other words, even the shepherd’s thought process is affected by the deceitful serpent, or Satan, whom the speaker finds disguised among the flowers. Satan’s hidden presence suggests that no matter how well intended the shepherd’s efforts may be, he cannot create a symbol of Christian praise that without making it a work of self-aggrandizement.
This predicament explains why the speaker suddenly realizes that his efforts can only “debase” God’s glory and “Heaven’s diadem,” or crown. It also reveals the depth of Marvell’s elaborate conceit. The poem that the shepherd is “writing” is the crown or coronet of flowers, and just as the shepherd realizes that his efforts are inherently tainted by mortal sin, Marvell acknowledges that the art of poetry contains seeds of pride and self-valorization that complicate the work of any devout Christian poet.
This is why the concluding image of the poem is an appeal to Christ. The shepherd, upon recognizing the futility of his efforts, asks Christ to come and undo the serpent's nefarious work – represented as “slipp’ry knots” and a “winding snare.” These images call upon Christ to shatter and annihilate the fruits of sin, which the speaker describes as “my curious frame,” referring at once to the coronet he has begun to make, to the poem itself, and even to his own body. The final two lines imagine Christ triumphant, standing on the “spoils” of his victory over sin.