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To His Coy Mistress
A Poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
Study Guide
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Type of Work
The Title
The Persona
Theme and Summary
Meter and Rhyme
Setting
Characters
The Poem With Annotations
Biography of Marvell
Study Questions
Essay Topics
More Poems by Marvell
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Type of Work

......."To 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 John Donne, 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 worms shall try / That long preserved virginity'). 
  • Gross exaggeration (hyperbole), as in line 15 ("two hundred [years] to adore each breast]. 
  • Expression of personal, private feelings, such as those the young man expresses in "To His Coy Mistress."
  • Presentation 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." 
The Title

.......The 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 poem. 

The Persona (The Young Man)

.......Although 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. 

Theme and Summary

.......“To 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. 

Meter and Rhyme

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:

......1..................2...................3...............4
Had WE..|..but WORLD..|..e NOUGH..|..and TIME

.......1.......... ..2...........  ....3...............4
This COY..|..ness LA..|..dy WERE..|..no CRIME

Setting

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.

Characters

Young Man: He pleads with a young lady to stop playing hard to get and accept his love. 
Young Lady: A coquettish woman. 

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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 which way
To walk2 and pass our long love's day. 
Thou by the Indian Ganges'3 side.......................
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 love7 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 wingèd chariot9 hurrying near; 
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,.....................25 
Nor, in thy marble vault,10 shall sound 
My echoing song: then worms11 shall 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.

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Notes

1.....coyness: Evasiveness, hesitancy, modesty, coquetry, reluctance; playing hard to get.
2.....which . . .  walk: Example of enjambment (carrying the sense of one line of verse over to the next line without a pause).
3.....Ganges: 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. 
4.....rubies: 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. 
5.....Humber: River in northeastern England. It flows through Hull, Andrew Marvell's hometown. 
6.....Flood. . . 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.
vegetable love: love cultivated and nurtured like a vegetable so that it flourishes prolifically
8.....this state: This lofty position; this dignity.
9.....Time's 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.
10...marble vault: The young lady's tomb. 
11...worms: a morbid phallic reference. 
12...quaint: Preserved carefully or skillfully.
13...dew: The 1681 manuscript of the poem uses glew (not dew), apparently as a coined past tense for glow
14...transpires: Erupts, breaks out, emits, gives off. 
15...slow-chapt: Chewing or eating slowly. 
16...Thorough: Through.

Comments

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.

Andrew Marvell

.......Andrew 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 until 1652. 
.......While 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." 

Study 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 of speech.
  • Why does Marvell use the word echoing in line 27?
  • What is Marvell's tone (or attitude) in lines 31 and 32? 
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