His Coy Mistress," acclaimed long after Marvell's death a masterly work,
is a lyrical poem that scholars also classify as a metaphysical poem. Metaphysical
poetry, pioneered by
tends to focus on the following:
Startling comparisons or contrasts
of a metaphysical (spiritual, transcendent, abstract) quality to a concrete
(physical, tangible, sensible) object. In "To His Coy Mistress," for example,
Marvell compares love to a vegetable (line 11) in a waggish metaphor.
Mockery of idealized romantic
poetry through crude or shocking imagery, as in lines 27 and 28 ("then
shall try /That long preserved
exaggeration (hyperbole), as in line 15 ("two hundred [years] to adore
of personal, private feelings, such as those the young man expresses in
"To His Coy Mistress."
of a logical argument, or syllogism. In "To His Coy Mistress," this argument
may be outlined as follows: (1) We could spend decades or even centuries
in courtship if time stood still and we remained young. (2)
But time passes
swiftly and relentlessly. (3) Therefore, we must enjoy the pleasure of
each other now, without further ado.The conclusion of the argument begins
at Line 33 with "Now therefore."
title suggests (1) that the author looked over the shoulder of a young
man as he wrote a plea to a young lady and (2) that the author then reported
the plea exactly as the young man expressed it. However, the author added
the title, using the third-person possessive pronoun "his" to refer to
the young man. The word "coy" tells the reader that the lady is no easy
catch; the word "mistress" can mean lady, manager, caretaker, courtesan,
sweetheart, and lover. It can also serve as the female equivalent
of master. In "To His Coy Mistress," the word appears to be a synonym
for lady or sweetheart. In reality, of course, Marvell wrote the entire
Persona (The Young Man)
Andrew Marvell writes "To His Coy Mistress" in first-person point of view,
he presents the poem as the plea of another man (fictional, of course).
The poet enters the mind of the man and reports his thoughts as they manifest
themselves. The young man is impatient, desperately so, unwilling to tolerate
temporizing on the part of the young lady. His motivation appears to be
carnal desire rather than true love; passion rules him. Consequently, one
may describe him as immature and selfish.
His Coy Mistress” presents a familiar theme in literature—carpe diem
(meaning seize the day), a term coined by the ancient Roman poet
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace (65-8 B.C.). Here is the gist
of Andrew Marvell's poem: In response to a young man’s declarations of
love for a young lady, the lady is playfully hesitant, artfully demure.
But dallying will not do, he says, for youth passes swiftly. He and the
lady must take advantage of the moment, he says, and “sport us while we
may.” Oh, yes, if they had “world enough, and time” they would spend their
days in idle pursuits, leisurely passing time while the young man heaps
praises on the young lady. But they do not have the luxury of time, he
says, for “time's wingéd chariot” is ever racing along. Before they
know it, their youth will be gone; there will be only the grave. And so,
the poet pleads his case: Seize the day.
The poem is in iambic tetrameter,
with eight syllables (four feet) per line. Each foot consists of an unstressed
syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The last syllable of Line 1 rhymes
with the last syllable of line 2, the last syllable of line 3 rhymes with
the last syllable of line 4, the last syllable of line 5 rhymes with the
last syllable of line 6, and so on. Such pairs of rhyming lines are called
couplets. The following two lines, which open the poem, exhibit the meter
and rhyme prevailing in most of the other couplets in the poem:
The poem does not present
a scene in a specific place in which people interact. However, the young
man and the young lady presumably live somewhere in England (the native
land of the author), perhaps in northeastern England near the River Humber.
The poet mentions the Humber in line 7.
Young Man: He pleads
with a young lady to stop playing hard to get and accept his love.
Young Lady: A coquettish
To His Coy Mistress By Andrew Marvell Written in 1651-1652 and
Published in 1681
Had we but world enough,
and time, This coyness,1
Lady, were no crime. We would sit down and think
pass our long love's day. Thou
by the Indian Ganges'3
side.......................5 Shouldst rubies4
find: I by the tide Of Humber5
would complain. I would Love you ten years before
the Flood, And
you should, if you please, refuse Till
the conversion of the Jews.6........................10 My vegetable
should grow Vaster than empires, and
more slow; An hundred years should
go to praise Thine
eyes and on thy forehead gaze; Two hundred to adore each
breast,.....................15 But thirty thousand to the
rest; An age at least to every
part, And the last age should
show your heart. For, Lady, you deserve this
state,8 Nor would I love at lower
rate..............................20 But at my back
I always hear Time's
hurrying near; And yonder all before us
lie Deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more
be found,.....................25 Nor, in thy marble
shall sound My echoing song: then worms11shall
try That long preserved virginity, And your quaint12
honour turn to dust, And into ashes all my lust:.................................30 The grave's a fine and private
place, But none, I think, do there
embrace. Now therefore, while
the youthful hue Sits on thy skin like morning
dew,13 And while thy willing soul
transpires14..................35 At every pore with instant
fires, Now let us sport us while
we may, And now, like amorous birds
of prey, Rather at once our time
devour Than languish in his slow-chapt15
power................40 Let us roll all our strength
and all Our sweetness up into one
ball, And tear our pleasures with
rough strife Thorough16
the iron gates of life: Thus, though we cannot make
our sun...................45 Stand still, yet we will
make him run. .
Evasiveness, hesitancy, modesty, coquetry, reluctance; playing hard to
. . . walk: Example of enjambment (carrying the sense of one
line of verse over to the next line without a pause).
River in Asia originating in the Himalayas and flowing southeast, through
India, to the Bay of Bengal. The young man here suggests that the young
lady could postpone her commitment to him if her youth lasted a long, long
time. She could take real or imagined journeys abroad, even to India. She
could also refuse to commit herself to him until all the Jews convert to
Christianity. But since youth is fleeting (as the poem later points out),
there is no time for such journeys. She must submit herself to him now.
Gems that may be rose red or purplish red. In folklore, it is said that
rubies protect and maintain virginity. Ruby deposits occur in various parts
of the world, but the most precious ones are found in Asia, including Myanmar
(Burma), India, Thailand, Sri, Lanka, Afghanistan, and Russia.
River in northeastern England. It flows through Hull, Andrew Marvell's
. . Jews: Resorting to hyperbole, the
young man says that his love for the young lady is unbounded by time. He
would love her ten years before great flood that Noah outlasted in his
ark (Gen. 5:28-10:32) and would still love her until all Jews became Christians
at the end of the world.
love: love cultivated and nurtured like a vegetable so that it flourishes
state: This lofty position; this dignity.
wingèd chariot: In Greek mythology, the sun was personified
as the god Apollo, who rode his golden chariot from east to west each day.
Thus, Marvell here associates the sun god with the passage of time.
vault: The young lady's tomb.
a morbid phallic reference.
Preserved carefully or skillfully.
The 1681 manuscript of the poem uses glew (not dew), apparently
as a coined past tense for glow.
Erupts, breaks out, emits, gives off.
Chewing or eating slowly.
Lines 5 and 6, Lines 23
and 24, Lines 27 and 28: The final stressed vowel sounds of these pairs
of lines do not rhyme, as do the final stressed vowel sounds of all the
other pairs of lines.
Three Sections of the
Poem: Lines 1-20 discuss what would happen if the young man and young
woman had unlimited time. Lines 21-32 point out that they do not have unlimited
time. Lines 33-46 urge the young woman to seize the day and submit.
Marvell was born in Winestead, South Yorkshire, England, on March 31, 1621.
His father was a minister. The family moved to Hull, in the county of Humberside,
when Andrew was three. There, he grew up and attended school. In 1639,
a year after his mother died, Marvell received a bachelor's degree from
Cambridge University's Trinity College. His father died in 1640. Between
1642 and 1646, Marvell traveled in continental Europe, visiting France,
the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. In 1651, he accepted a
position at Nun Appleton, Yorkshire, as tutor to 12-year-old Mary Fairfax,
the daughter Sir Thomas Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary army in
the 1640's during the English Civil Wars. Marvell remained in that position
at Nun Appleton, he wrote several of his most acclaimed poems, including
"To His Coy Mistress" and "The Garden." Between 1653 and 1657, he served
as a tutor to a ward of Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector of England,
Ireland, and Scotland during the Commonwealth period (1653-1658). Marvell
had praised Cromwell in a 1650 poem, "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return
from Ireland." In 1657, Marvell served under the great scholar and poet
John Milton in the foreign office and in 1659 was elected to Parliament
to represent Hull. Marvell was best known during his lifetime for his political
achievements and his political satires in prose and verse. His best poetry
was published in Miscellaneous Poems 1681 from a manuscript his
housekeeper found while going through his belongings shortly after his
death in 1678. In the 20th Century, critics began to acknowledge him as
an outstanding poet of his time and to acclaim "To His Coy Mistress" as
a truly great poem. T.S. Eliot presents several allusions to the poem in
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Questions and Essay Topics
Why does this poem, written
in the 17th Century, remain popular in the 21st Century?
Write an essay that analyzes
the personality and character of the young man.
Identify examples in the poem
of metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, and other figures
Why does Marvell use the word
in line 27?
What is Marvell's tone (or attitude)
in lines 31 and 32?