Andrew Marvells To His Coy Mistress
    Andrew Marvell:   ***To his coy mistress***

* *Based on A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature: Wilfred L. Guerin - Oxford U. Press.

This is an iconic love poem written about forty years after John Donne’s time.  One young student commented that Marvell was such a smooth talker, he could charm the pants off a concrete statue.

I.               Textual Linguistic  #

Diction affects the connotation, nuances and associative implications of language. Linguistic meanings of words in context.

  • “*coy” – suggests a pretence of shyness or affected modesty -demurring, which is intended to be alluring. Siren? Coquette?

mistress – this is a proposition; not a proposal.
youthful hue – rhymes with- dew blooming – “glew” (ll. 33 -34)
transpires - suggests the lady is willing. (l.35)
instant fires – willing, aroused, urgent, eager desire - hot. (l.36)

A proposal is plea for enduring intimacy – marriage while a proposition is a request for temporary intimacy - a fling;  a tryst; an affair?

 Time will tell if Plácido Domingo’s: “It wasn’t sexual harassment, they were ‘gallant gestures’”,  will pass muster.

II.                   Genre and paraphrasable content #

This is a lyric poem, imaginative, emotional and subjective, with an impassioned, but a graceful, urbane plea to a young lady for sexual congress.  Though direct, it is not coarse or crude, rather sophisticated with many philosophical and allusive arguments why they should make love.
The closely reasoned arguments are structured in a logical manner, much like a lawyer might mount in a court case.

The mood changes from subjunctive to indicative and declarative or imperative.

Subjunctive:  *“if we had all the time in the world…”
*Indicative:     *“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot..”
*Imperative:   “…Therefore” we must make the most of time.
Though the two premises may be true, the conclusion is not necessarily valid.

III.             Historical, Biographical #

Marvell, (1621 – 78) a late Metaphysical poet, a highly educated man in the classics, logic, biblical and law.  As a Puritan,he admired Oliver Cromwell and John Milton.  However, rather than pietist, pedantic, or overly confrontational, the tone remains urbane and playful – full of mischievous banter.  The varied allusions come from Greek mythology, Courtly Love and the Bible.

Metaphysical poetry reacted against Petrarchan and sugary Elizabethan Love poetry.  Rather than just platonic, it is more sensuous and erotic.  It is characterised by wit, and conceits.  Like Donne, Marvell attempts to explain the emotional and spiritual elements of life in concrete, rational and logical terms.  Both attempts to define our sentiments by logical syllogisms or in scientific terms.

Donne also rejected courtly love but celebrated the immediate physicality of enduring love; using hardly any mythological allusions.

Courtly Love as portrayed in the literature of the period from 1100 – about 1550 shared the following features:

Love of Knight for an unattainable lady – the situation is hopeless, impossible.

The lover pines for years for his unrequited love – some more than 20 years. - he is totally devoted, abject, loyal and long-suffering - He is hers to command

Clandestine – secret; lady may not even be aware of his love.

Illicit - either or both parties are married to another person for status or commercial reasons.

Lady was placed on a pedestal and worshipped as a goddess. - Lady was aloof, oblivious or deliberately coy.

Sexual tension is ever present; but spiritual platonic devotion more important

Conflict:  Lust of the carnal     vs    Spirit of the Soul 


Courtly love idealised women leading men to ultimate beauty, truth and God.  Through the pursuit of beauty men would transcend or be exalted beyond the physical or temporal to a higher spiritual plain and aspire to Godliness. His pining draws the lover away from things which are base.

Beauty =   spirit in ascendancy over matter leading to goodness.

Ugliness = spirit in descendancy over matter leading to evil

Marvell appears to suggest Courtly Love, with its constancy, would be acceptable in an ideal world, but we are mortal therefore limited to physical satisfactions.

IV.  Moral and Philosophical Approaches #

The brevity of life imposes a more pagan view of courtship – sexual pleasure.
The theme of “carpe diem” – seize the day – eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die is also present in Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, or Edmund Waller Go, Lovely Rose.  Sexual activity is simply dalliance: “Let us sport us while we may”.

Celibacy and chastity appear a deluded ideal of most religions.

Pope Benedict XVI, called celibacy for priests “a sign of full devotion” to the Lord and repeatedly insisted it was here to stay.

Pope Francis has been less categorical, describing celibacy as a matter of tradition, rather than dogma. “It can change”.

By 1906, Gandhi had taken the Hindu vow of brahmacharya - chastity. At the age of 36, he was determined to be celibate.

Although he proclaimed his abstinence, he still managed to be extremely intimate with many of his women.

Disgusted by his innate lust, Gandhi would try to distance himself from the women - but he was soon sleeping next to them again - and, what’s more, blaming his surrender on them. ‘I could not bear the tears of Sushila,' he said.

He deliberately put himself into increasingly arousing situations to prove mind over matter.

He would often sleep next to naked nubile young women to test himself; each failure merely meant a renewed attempt was inevitable.

The Catholic Church has proven time and time again the only way to a clean pure life is through enforced celibacy. It worked for some 900 years and it has only been the last 25 years of revelations of rampant predation of indiscreet choir boys to raise a few minor concerns.  It relied on compliant choir boy’s ability to open their mouths to receive the benediction of “Omnia membri sancta fellanto” * but keep their mouths shut during any forensic procedural investigations.

  • “Omnia membri fellanto” - All cocks must be sucked – quoted from Life Sentence by Christie Blanchard, courtesy of researcher Kirsten Smith’s contact with Alban Walsh of Newfoundland.  It uses the rare form of future imperative that is used only for legal/court documents.  I simply added the sancta.

Incels is a label that involuntary celibates have given themselves and insist that they have every entitlement to enjoy sex.

Religion, in Marvell’s time was being undermined by rationalism of Francis Bacon’s inductive method, Copernicus’ theory of the earth being the centre of our universe and Thomas Hobbes’ materialism.  Is the poet a pessimist or simply a cad?  Feminism would likely argue the latter.

V.    Formalistic approach #

The formalistic approach advocates that the text is central and can stand on its own. In order to derive meaning all you need is a close reading with intense focus on form, language, patterns, allusion, point of view, tone and voice.

As we noted above the genre here is a lyrical love poem. It conforms to poetic patterns of sound and meaning.  Its structure of the subjunctive “Had we” is contrary to the indicative fact that time is finite, therefore we need to deal with the reality of time and space.

Poetic language is suggestive – connotative rather than referential or denotative.   Much of the fascination of the poem stems from its play on the multiple meanings of words some with sexual innuendo.

The first stanza appears a calculated inventory of her anatomy; eyes, forehead, breast, the rest, and heart. “Nor would love at a lower rate”, introduces a commercial value, reducing her to a market commodity.

His poetic weapons consist of persuasive flattery playing on her vanity

  • poetic foreplay.

*“Quaint honour” *could be ironic as it could refer to the pudendum as in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale“queynte”. The iron gates of life refer to the birth canal and the ring of the pelvic bones we all had to pass through. The grave’s a private place plays on our private parts.  The “hot” fires of desire are contrasted with the cold marble vaults of sarcophagus

The allusive references promise more than what they indicate.  Allusions allow the writer to give an example or get a point across without going into a lengthy discourse. Allusions engage the reader and will often help the reader remember the message or theme of the passage. Allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event that is referenced. Fortunately, today it is easy to look these things up on the internet.

**Allusions **create the impression that a personal issue has historical comparison; the microcosm is reflected by the macrocosm.  It is not a singular problem, but a general one; of universal and historical significance.

Succinct allusions, marginally relevant but of sound aesthetic provenance, lightly inserted suggest vast allusive reserves, certainly enhances the texture of poetry, keeping us in a continuous and critical relationship with the past and may even contribute in useful ways to sustaining a learned and authoritative knowledgeable tone.

Space is alluded to the distance between the Humber (a river in England) and the Ganges, (a river in India).  Time is measured from before the Flood and the conversion of the Jews – an unlikely possibility.  Time is infinite, therefore unmeasurable, but as humans we are bound by time and cannot escape from time.  Paradoxically he wants to express infinite time, but can only do so in finite units or measures.

 Gilgamesh learns that *“the gods gave themselves eternal life; they gave us inescapable death.  Such is the destiny of mortal men”. * Sophocles echoes this tenet in Oedipus at Colonus, 607: “Only the gods have ageless and deathless life”.

*“Time’s winged chariot” *is an allusion to Phaeton and the relentless passing of time.

*“Rather at once our time devour/ than languish in his slow chapped power” *is an attempt to redeem the time.  It likely refers to Chronos’ cannibalistic attempts to eat his children so they could not usurp his power.

Stopping the clock – “though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make it run”  could reference Joshua’s appeal to God for the sun to stand still so he could win his battle against the Amorites (Joshua 10.13) or Zeus stopping the sun from rising to prolong the night he spent with Alceme.  “Yet we will make it run” time passes more quickly doing pleasurable things.

Other hyperbolic references to time:

*“long love’s day, A hundred to praise thine eyes, / Two hundred for each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest”.  “An age, the last age.  Vast eternity, Youthful hue *(will not last),

The patterns conform to the three moods with subtle changes in tone. 

The tone shifts dramatically, from accusatory – “coyness were no crime”, to flattery.  It remains bold, confident, arrogant, self- assured throughout.  The modality changes from speculative to harsh reality to an ultimatum.

The subjunctive “If” is mocking in its hyperbolic, unrealistic half- teasing of extravagant possibilities. The speaker is parodying the folly of unrealistic romanticism.  Yet there is an undertone of seriousness. T.S. Eliot defines wit as “levity which can intensify the seriousness”.  Comedy can make us pause and think. 

The indicative mood following the “” But” is more direct and confronting. Its blunt message is “get real” – shocking fact of death and the decay, through time, of the flesh.  It could convey an honest but a condescending or scathing and negative assessment of the urgency of their situation.  The understatement:

“The grave’s a fine and private place

*But none, I think, do there embrace”. *

Could be seen as condescending, but remains polite and respectful. 

The final imperative mood suddenly shifts to a more direct persuasive approach, more positively and conciliatorily urgent asking her to join him in the violent animalistic pleasurable response to love.  “Therefore” assumes the lady agrees and must feel the same attraction and urgency.  The conclusive argument is tightened allowing for little refutation.   It appeals to the melancholic awareness or the brevity of life, our mutability, the transience of youth and our mortality. 

It is more than the mere gratification of carnal desires, rather the importance of living each moment to the fullest in defiance of the decay of encroaching age.

VI.  Psychological considerations #

Freud posited the theory that the vast majority of our motivations were primal, sub-conscious, and motivated by our sexuality.  

Erotic poetry confirms many of his theories.  Sex is a gross animalistic act, but we manage to sublimate it by romanticising it.  The revered French actor Catherine Deneuve insisted that women were “sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive. But we are also clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.” 

Prurient language can be sensual, salacious, immodest, scandalous, libidinous, lascivious, lustful, licentious, lecherous, lewd, lubricious, indecent, unwholesome, titillating, depraved, debauched, degenerate, dissolute, dissipated, concupiscent.

Erotic writing arouses sexual intimacy while pornography stimulates sexual gratification.

The speaker refines his lust by sugar coating his seductive intentions with flattery and ideal, rational, erudite arguments making them palatable and acceptable: 

          We would sit down and think which way

*          To walk and pass our long love’s day.*

*          ……*

*          For, Lady, you deserve this state,*

*          Nor would I love at lower rate.*

The harsh reality alluded to in the second stanza illustrated by the directness of lust turning to dust. 

The third stanza’ sexual imagery is much more blunt and overt.  Having accused her coyness of being a crime, it now accuses her of being as willing and eager as he is.  *“willing soul”, “instant fires”. * She is as hot and fevered as he is – they are both “amorous birds of prey”. 

Oral imagery of devouring their time is contrasted with “Than languish in his slow-chapped power”. 

The passivity of the first stanza becomes impassioned actions of *“roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up in one ball,/ And tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Thorough the iron gates of life”. * Note the inclusive pronouns. 

The sexual innuendo is subjective, but obvious. 

VII.       Archetypal Approaches #

The archetype of time and immortality.

Stanza one posits an escape from time a recurring motif of myth – a rejection of mortality.  It involves a delusional fantasy of a paradisal state.  The archetype of the garden is illustrated in the slow growth of their vegetable love.  Gradual but prodigious and productive.  Unlike Achilles, life should be measured by duration, not intensity.

**Stanza two,  introduces the opposing ***“deserts of vast eternity. *

“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through desert go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to fi, nd reality.”  ― Paul ShepardMan in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Aesthetics of Nature

But reality is finite time, aridity, decay, death dissolution, where “Time’s winged Chariot” brings us back to the hard fact.

Stanza three introduces the archetypal cyclical time; birth, life, death, re-birth. The tone is much more active and enthusiastic as we celebrate the sensual with “soul and instant fires”. We are filled with creative energy, rejuvenation.  Our mortality is defeated by the wholeness of the life cycle – “Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball”.  By procreation, our destiny is assured and fulfilled through our offspring – children and grandchildren.

VIII. Evaluation

All approaches have merit, however “*Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ ** * Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

However, knowing something about context and perspective can increase our appreciation and help us make sense of a work of art.

According to * ***Seamus Heaney, **"*The poet’s skill lies in the summoning and semantic energies of words.”  *It relies on nuances, suggestion, the multiples meanings of words and the inferences we all choose to draw.