Had we but world enough and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime…ANDREW MARVELL
Hello there A Level Poetry friends…welcome back. We’ve been expecting you. This time, we’re taking a look at Andrew Marvell’s marvellous pre-1900s poem, To His Coy Mistress, offering our insight and To His Coy Mistress analysis for your delectation. As ever, we’ll be exploring:
- About the Author
- Quick Summary
It if ain’t broke…
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Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress is either a hyperbolical, coercive attempt to seduce his ‘mistress,’ using the timeless ‘carpe diem’ argument, or a satirical treatment of traditional love poetry. Or possibly both. Through the poem, Marvell uses various ideas about life being short, time flying and the inexorable threat of death in order to persuade his ‘lady’ to embrace the moment and have sex. It is entirely down to the reader to decide how successful the argument is!
About the Author
Andrew Marvell, whose poetry is now a staple of English Literature students’ diets (eat up), wasn’t famed for his lyrical writing until after his death. In fact, whilst alive, he was most notable for his political leanings and colourful career.
A Yorkshire man (wheyy), he was born in Winestead in 1621 and served as Member of Parliament for Hull many times between 1659 and 1678. At the tender age of 12 he attended Trinity College, Cambridge and by the age of 16 had had two poems published in an anthology of Cambridge poets dedicated to the new baby prince; one in Greek and one in Latin! Not content with this accolade, and his bachelor’s degree, he decided to continue studying for a master’s. However, this was interrupted by his father’s death by drowning in 1641, following which Marvell left Cambridge.
Marvell spent the 1640s travelling throughout Europe, adding four more languages to his repertoire: French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian, possibly working as a tutor and absolutely, whether intentional or not, avoiding the most brutal war on English soil: the Civil War.
Marvell was a man of many talents and as well as metaphysical, he also wrote satirical verse. Though Marvell became a Parliamentarian, he was not a Puritan. Marvell wrote anonymous prose satires criticising the monarchy and Roman Catholicism. Later, when Charles II came to the throne, he was able to escape penalty for his critical writings and even convinced the government to spare John Milton from execution for his antimonarchical writings.
Marvell died in 1678 at the age of 57, amongst rumours that he had been poisoned by anti-Cromwellian Catholics who disliked his religious and political opinions. However, in only 2020 academics at the University of Hull discovered evidence that Marvell may have accidentally overdosed on opiates whilst trying to cure himself from Malaria…it’s easily done.
To His Coy Mistress takes the form of a dramatic monologue. Marvell begins with the speaker directly addressing his mistress as “Lady” and continues to talk to her throughout. This use of the apostrophic places the reader as a voyeuristic listener and, combined with the subject matter, creates the effect that the reader is overhearing a very intimate conversation. Moreover, the mistress’ opinion is never heard and so she remains a passive part of the narrative, albeit whilst wielding sexual power over the speaker. To the reader, the speaker’s identity remains mysterious. His use of a wide range of seemingly contradictory images and ideas, presented through elaborate intellectual references renders his viewpoint ambiguous. Is he sincere or using the poem as a way of satirising other forms of love poetry?
Marvell uses a syllogistic structure to present his argument. A syllogism is a form of logical argument wherein you reach a specific conclusion by looking at two other premises e.g.
- All men are mortal (major premise)
- Tom is a man (minor premise)
- Therefore Tom is mortal (conclusion)
Marvell’s syllogistic argument in To His Coy Mistress is presented across the three stanzas:
- If we lived forever being coy wouldn’t matter.
- But we are going to die.
- Therefore, we should sleep together whilst we can.
Each of the three stanzas presents a different element of the argument.
To His Coy Mistress uses rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter, this means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first is unstressed and the second is stressed. e.g. du-DUM, du-DUM, du-DUM, du-DUM. This creates a playful, light-hearted rhythm which is juxtaposed by the serious metaphysical themes and imagery.
- Had we but world e-nough and time,
- This coy-ness, la-dy, were no crime.
It enables the speaker to deliver his solemn message by offering it with a light-hearted tone.
To His Coy Mistress Analysis
The imagery varies widely across the poem. Marvell uses images of the everyday, “sit down, and think which way/To walk”; empire and exploration, “the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find”; Biblical, “Love you ten years before the flood”; metaphysical, “But thirty thousand to the rest”; death and the macabre, “thy marble vault”; flesh and the body, “every pore with instant fires”; nature and freshness, “youthful hue/Sits on thy skin like morning dew”. By using such a vast range of imagery Marvell juxtaposes, highlights and satirises various ideas about love, courtship, morality and mortality.
Lucky for you, Marvell uses a vast range of language devices. The poem is written hyperbolically, with much exaggeration and dramatic imagery used to satirise love poetry, courtship and also impress upon the mistress the urgency of their situation. Marvell uses witty epigrams often in couplets throughout, many couplets being end-stopped, signifying a complete thought. A key theme and component of the speaker’s argument is the threat of time, this is achieved by personifying time and giving it the qualities of a living, breathing enemy, able to hound the lovers.
Likewise, Marvell makes good use of metaphor, describing the afterlife as “deserts of vast eternity” asserting the infinite emptiness offered in death. Marvell also uses allusion to elevate the intellectual argument of the speaker, referring to the Bible, as well as ancient philosophies and Aristotle’s ideas about the human soul’s evolution from “vegetable”. Assonance, consonance and alliteration add to the playful, melodious rhythm of the poem, enabling the speaker to discuss heavy metaphysical ideas with a light-hearted, and therefore, less oppressive tone.
- To His Coy Mistress takes the form of a dramatic monologue
- The poem is written hyperbolically, with much exaggeration and dramatic imagery used to satirise love poetry
- Marvell uses witty epigrams often in couplets throughout, many couplets being end-stopped
- Marvell uses images of the everyday, along with that of empire and exploration
- To His Coy Mistress uses rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter
- The two main themes of To His Coy Mistress are love (sex) and death (mortality)
- Marvell uses a syllogistic structure to present his argument
To His Coy Mistress Analysis from Beyond: Advanced
More? You poetry-lapping animals…below, you’ll find a link to our To His Coy Mistress analysis worksheet.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run.ANDREW MARVELL
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