To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

To His Coy Mistress Summary & Analysis

In Short

  • In Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poem “To His Coy Mistress”, the speaker addresses his ladylove who is shy and not responsive to his call for love.
  • The speaker tries to make her realise the brevity (shortness) of life.
  • He urges the lady to make love to him at their youthful heights before it is too late.

To His Coy Mistress — Explanation

Lines 1–4

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Andrew Marvell’s famous metaphysical love poem “To His Coy Mistress” begins with the speaker talking to his shy ladylove (coy mistress). He opines that if they had plenty of time and space in this world to live, then her shyness would not be considered a crime. So, the speaker calls his ladylove’s present shyness a crime.

The speaker adds that if they had enough time in their hand, then they would sit together somewhere and would plan the ways in which they can spend their time. They would plan how they would walk or how they would pass the “long love’s day”.

So, in these opening lines of the poem, the speaker seems to be trying to convince his ‘coy mistress’ about the mortality of human life. Moreover, he is talking about love. Let’s read on to know further.

Lines 5–10

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

Well, the speaker continues the same argument here. He would imagine the condition if they had a limitless life. If they had enough time, his beloved would sit beside the river Ganga in India and collect some valuable stones like rubies. On the other hand, the speaker would sit on bank of river Humber complaining to the river about her beloved not coming to him. Thus, they would pass the days.

In the next line, the speaker expresses how much he would love his beloved if they had enough time. He says he would love his mistress for “ten years before the flood”. This alludes to the Great Flood in Christian history. Also, his mistress could refuse his proposal until the “Conversion of the Jews”, which refers to the day of Christian judgement prophesied for the end of times in the new testament’s Book of Revelation. He would not mind as they will have enough time to make love.

Lines 11–14

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

In the next line, the speaker claims that his love is a “vegetable love”. He compares his love with vegetable because his love grows slowly and organically, without any external force. The speaker then suggests that if time permitted, his love would grow more than the width of an empire and its growth will be very gradual.

Then the speaker goes on to describe how he would have praised each and every part of his beloved’s body if he had enough time to live. He says he would have consumed a hundred years in praising her eyes and gazing at her forehead.

Lines 15–20

Two hundred to adore each breast,
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,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

In a continuation from the previous lines, the lover would take two hundred years to adore each of his ladylove’s breasts. Also, he would take thirty thousand years for praising rest of her body. The speaker claims that he would have consumed a lifetime to praise each part of her beloved’s body. He will concentrate on her heart at the very end.

The speaker claims that his beloved deserves to be praised like this. She is so beautiful and so charming that the lover couldn’t love her any lesser if he got enough time in this life.

Lines 21–24

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Here begins the second section of the poem. In the first section, the speaker was talking about the possibilities of the extent of love that they could enjoy if they had a limitless life in this world. But alas! It is impossible. He says that he hears the sound of the time’s wings as it flies closely behind their backs. Time waits for no one. It files, leaving everything behind.

He also says that the other world (after death) is waiting for us at a distance (yonder). It’s like a vast desert of eternity lying before us. Thus, the lover reminds his beloved of life’s brevity (shortness).

Lines 25–28

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,

Here the speaker describes the situation after death. In our destined tomb, our beauty will slowly but surely turn into dust. So, the beloved’s beauty will fade as soon as she dies. Here “marble vault” refers to coffin. The speaker’s song would not be heard from her coffin. Everything will vanish and turn to dust there.

After mentioning the beloved’s beauty, the speaker speaks of her virginity that she has preserved for a long time. The worms would destroy this long-preserved virginity there in the coffin. Thus, we see, the speaker tries to make his lady realize that things like beauty and virginity are of no use after death.

Lines 29–32

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.

Not only her virginity, but also her honour will turn to dust. All that honour for which she has saved her virginity will be attacked by worms. At the same time, his lust for her beauty too will turn into ashes. Though the lover finds the grave a “fine and private place” as nobody can’t see them there, it’s not the place where lovers should “embrace”.

Lines 33–37

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,

The last section starts with “now therefore”. It means the speaker will now talk about the things they need to do right now before the time flies. He says that youth is the best part of the life to enjoy. At this time, one becomes energetic and passionate. The skin is as fresh as the morning dew.

Moreover, in her youth, the beloved’s soul is very much willing to come out (transpire) from every pore of the skin with immediate desires. The speaker here is actually talking about his lady’s erotic desires which he believes he can see in her body. So, he suggests that they should indulge in physical lovemaking (‘sport’ hints at a sexual play) without wasting time. This is like making hay while the sun shines.

Lines 38–40

And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

The speaker now suggests that the two lovers should be like passionate (amorous) preying birds (like eagle, hawk etc.) and eat (devour) time before time eats them. He means to say that unless the lovers enjoy their time at their youthful heights, time won’t wait for them and they will slowly suffer (languish) the destructing power of time.

Lines 41–46

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

The speaker now suggests that they should unite all their strength and passion along with their sweetness to get the pleasure of love. Life is just an iron gate that doesn’t open easily. It is filled with struggle and resentment (rough strife). With all their strength and passion, the lovers will tear the iron gate to get that happiness.

In the last couplet, the poet wants to say that they can’t make their good times of youth wait for them. However, they can make the most of their time with love’s unitedness. It would be a fitting challenge to the running of time then.

To His Coy Mistress — Into details

Publication

Andrew Marvell was a metaphysical poet writing in the interregnum period. “To His Coy Mistress” is one of his famous metaphysical poems. He wrote this poem during the English Interregnum (1649-60). The poem was first published posthumously (after the poet’s death) in 1681, in “Miscellaneous Poems” but it may have been circulated as manuscript before that. It’s a renowned carpe-diem poem in English literature.

Background/context

Andrew Marvell belonged to a literary group known as “Metaphysical poets”. Metaphysical poetry is highly philosophical and full of strange metaphors. This kind of poetry was developed mainly by John Donne in the 1590s and early 1600s. Marvell belongs to the second generation of metaphysical poets. His present poem “To His Coy Mistress” was influenced by other metaphysical poets as well as other poetic conventions.

Also, this poem was written probably in the 1650s, during a significant political turmoil in the English society. So, Marvell’s speaker seems to have withdrawn from all such political complications. He rather wants to experience love apart from the politics of the world in which he lives. This poem is a perfect example of “carpe diem” theme that means “seize the day”, i.e., make the most of the present time.

Setting

In “To His Coy Mistress”, no particular setting is found. The overall poem takes place in the speaker’s imagination. But the poet mentions the name of some places. The speaker imagines himself and his mistress wandering across the whole earth, from the river Humber (East Yorkshire) in England to the Ganges in India. Most of the poem talks about love and sexuality. So, we may think that the speaker and his mistress could be any lovers living in any setting.

Title

The title of the poem “To His Coy Mistress” tells us that the speaker is saying something to his ladylove (mistress) who is shy (coy). This word ‘coy’ is used in a specific meaning that the ladylove is not at all responsive to her lover’s call of making love.

According to the poet-lover, we should enjoy every moment of our life as it is precious. We should use the opportunity whenever we get. The poem is completely based on the “carpe-diem” theme which means “seize the day”. The poem is the poet- lover’s urge to his beloved to break her coyness and make love before it is too late. So, the title is quite apt for the poem.

Form and language

The poem “To His Coy Mistress” is 46-lines long with three sections. With no real divisions, we should call those ‘sections’ rather than ‘stanzas’. The first section consists of 20 lines and speaks of what the lovers would do if they had a limitless life. In the second section of 12 lines, the speaker talks of death and how time would destroy the beloved’s beauty like everything else. And the last section consisting of 14 lines conveys the speaker’s urge to his lady to make love before the time flies.

The poem “To His Coy Mistress” takes the form of a dramatic monologue, a solo speech by the speaker. The speaker addresses to his mistress and argues about the need to make love without wasting time. In the poem we find humorously exaggerated references to traditional romantic ideas presented in a satirical tone.

Meter and Rhyme scheme

The poem “To His Coy Mistress” is written in rhyming couplets. It maintains AABB rhyme scheme.

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

There are half-rhymes in lines 7-8, 23-24 and 27-28. Half-rhyme is an imperfect rhyme in which the final consonants of stressed syllables match, but the vowel sounds do not agree. [look, take]

Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,

As for the metrical pattern, the whole poem uses iambic tetrameter lines. An iamb is a disyllabic metrical foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. It is represented as ×___√. Tetrameter means a line consisting of four such feet.

Had we | but world | enough | and time,
This coy– | ness, lad-| y, were | no crime.

To His Coy Mistress — Themes

Love

“To His Coy Mistress” is basically a love poem. Like most other metaphysical poems, this also deals with love, beauty, Sexuality etc. The speaker wants to make love as soon as possible. In exaggerated traditional references of lovemaking, the speaker expresses how much he loves his coy mistress. But the lady is here not responding to the lover’s call. So, the speaker-lover is desperately trying to convince her to make love with him without wasting time, as they are at their height of youth now.

The love expressed here is more physical and sensual than spiritual, as we generally see in Donne’s metaphysical poems like The Flea, The Good Morrow etc.

Brevity of Life

The speaker of the poem is haunted by mortality, the shortness of this earthly life. He highlights the destroying power of time in the second section of the poem with references of “time’s winged chariot”, “grave”, “desert of vast eternity”, “worms” etc. If they had enough time, they could make love in a luxurious way. But he knows it is impossible. So, he wants to do it before death. Death can’t be delayed or defeated. The motto of the speaker is to enjoy as much pleasure as possible before death comes.

To His Coy Mistress — Symbols

Time’s winged chariot

It’s a very powerful symbol used in the poem “To His Coy Mistress”. Time and mortality are the prime concern of this poem. It means mortals can’t escape from the destroying power of time. Death will come in its swift way. We can do nothing to defeat time. So, when we get the opportunity, we should use it. However, the winged chariot represents time’s inevitability and its upper hand over mortals.

Deserts of Eternity

Another symbol used in the poem is the phrase “Deserts of vast eternity” in the second section. The speaker has no reason to believe that the future will be any less fruitful than the present. However, the world will no longer contain the possibility of love between himself and his mistress. As far as he is concerned, this lack of love renders the next world barren and lifeless, an eternal, loveless desert.

Birds of prey

The speaker imagines themselves as amorous preying birds devouring time. Rather than being time’s prey, we can prey upon time if we can make the most of it. By using this metaphysical conceit, the speaker tries to convince his lady to make love at the earliest.

Sun

In the final couplet of the poem “To His Coy Mistress”, the sun is used as a symbol for time as a whole. The speaker says that he cannot make the sun wait but can surely make him run. He means to say that though he cannot preserve their youthful days for time unlimited, they can surely throw a challenge at the run of time by enjoying their present time to the fullest.

To His Coy Mistress — Literary Devices

End-stopped Lines

An end-stopped line is a line of verse that ends with a punctuation. Many lines in the poem “To His Coy Mistress” are end-stopped lines. For examples –

An Age at least to every part,
And the last Age should show your heart.
For Lady you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.

Enjambment

When a sentence continues to the next line of a verse without pause, it is called an enjambment. Here are examples from the poem –

My vegetable Love should grow
Vaster
than Empires, and more slow.
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine
Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze.

Caesura

A caesura in poetry is a pause (with a comma, semicolon etc.) in the middle of a line.

Had we but World enough, and Time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long Loves Day.

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words. Here are some instances from the poem –

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; by the tide

(the ‘i’ sound in ‘side’, ‘find’, ‘I’ ‘by’ and ‘tide’)

My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity, (‘o’ sound)

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in neighbouring words.

That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,

(‘t’, ‘n’ and ‘r’ sounds)

And while thy willing soutranspires (‘l’ sound)

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

We would sit down, and think which way

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

Simile

A simile is a direct comparison between two things using ‘as’ or ‘like’.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

In the above lines (33-34), the speaker compares his lady’s youthful beauty and freshness to the morning dew using a simile.

And now, like amorous birds of prey

In line 38 of “To His Coy Mistress”, the speaker-lover compares themselves to passionate preying birds who can eat time before time eats them.

Metaphor

A metaphor is an indirect or implied comparison between two things where there is a point of similarity.

My vegetable love should grow

In line 11, the speaker implicitly compares his love to vegetables for its slower development.

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

In line 22, time is indirectly compared to a winged chariot. Time waits for none and it flies swiftly and hence this comparison.

Deserts of vast eternity.

Again, in line 24, eternity is compared to a desert. We have no idea of the other world after death. That is why it seems barren and like a desert to us.

Personification

Personification is a literary device in which human qualities are attributed to non-human things.

In Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”, time has been personified on more than one occasion.

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

In the above line, time is seen driving his winged chariot as if he is a human being.

Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

In the above lines, the speaker uses the pronoun ‘his’ for time and speaks of its slow engulfing power.

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

Again, in the final lines of the poem, the lover uses ‘him’ for sun and talks of making him run. All there are examples of personification.

Imagery

Imageries are used to make the readers perceive things with their five senses.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

Visual imageries are used in the above lines. We can visualize the ladylove sitting on the riverbank and the flying chariot hurrying behind us.

Allusion

An allusion is an indirect reference to something which is literally, historically or culturally important.

In Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, there are allusions of the river Humber in England and the Ganges in India.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain…

Again, there are Biblical allusions of the Great Flood and the Conversion of the Jews.

Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

In line 22, the speaker also alludes to the mythological winged chariot driven by the sun god Helios.

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

Apostrophe

An apostrophe in literature is generally an exclamatory address to an absent person or to a personified thing.

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

In the poem “To His Coy Mistress”, the speaker is a lover and he address his message to his ladylove. The entire poem is in the form of an address to her using the pronouns like ‘thy’, ‘thou’ ‘you’ etc.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim that is not meant to be taken literally.

In the poem “To His Coy Mistress”, the speaker reaches the heights of exaggeration when he says that he would take one hundred years to praise and gaze at his lady’s eyes and forehead, two hundred years to adore each of her breasts and thirty thousand years for the rest of her body.

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;

Again, this is an obvious overstatement when the speaker says that he would make the sun run.

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

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