This poem is a carpe diem, which means, “seize the day” (Rees 3). The speaker is nameless just like the mistress he addresses in this three-stanza poem. The poem opens by the speaker putting his case straightforward. He laments that they would court forever; however, time does not allow and this fact calls the mistress to do away with her coyness and seize the moment.
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If only time was not a limiting factor, the mistress’ coyness would not be an offense. In first stanza the speaker given time, he would concentrate on each part of the mistress until he reaches the heart. However, time does not allow this.
The second stanza opens up with warnings to the mistress. First, the speaker makes it clear that, time is flying and they are on the verge of death and soon they will be safely sealed in a coffin where they will dwell forever because death is infinite and inevitable.
In a warning stunt, the speaker tells the mistress that once in the coffin, worms will feast on her, robbing her of her virginity and this makes no sense; therefore, it is better for them to have sex before this fate befalls them. On his side, failure to have sex, his lust will end up in ashes after burning in the coffin.
After making sure that the mistress is convinced, the speaker now explores the goodness of sex and claims that through sex, they would release the frustrations that have taunted them for a long time. Finally, he concludes by saying that, “though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run” (Marvell stanza III). The literary element that stands out clearly here is theme. There is the theme of time, sex, mortality, freedom, and confinement.
This poem opens up with persuasion. The speaker is desperate to engage the mistress in a sexual relationship. “Had we but world enough and time; this coyness lady was no crime” (Marvel stanza I). The insinuation here is that, these lovers or any other lovers for that matter have no enough time in the world to keep on post phoning time to have sex.
Moreover, if this time were available, then coyness would not be a crime; however, now that time is limited, this coyness becomes a crime. These first lines give the reader an insight on what to expect in the entire poem. These lines opens up to a fictional world where lovers can live forever thus they can afford to court for a long time.
The second stanza however, restores sanity and makes the mistress come back from that fictional world were people live forever. “But at my back… (Marvel stanza II). This “But” sounds like awakening call to the mistress to stop fantasizing and face the reality. Unfortunately, the reader can only imagine the mistress’ answer because the poem is one sided, without answers.
Going back to stanza I, the speaker uses all words that a man can use to convince a woman into having sex. She cannot get out of his mind regardless of the distance between them. He says, “Thou by the Indian Ganges side / Should’st Rubies find: I by the Tide of Humber / would complain…” (Marvel stanza I).
The speaker chooses his words carefully. He exalts the mistress’ abode by noting that there rubies would be found. This signifies how comfortable the mistress is. However, the speaker is in suffering for he stays by the estuary and is dangerous for the tides may sweep him away anytime. This perhaps is to make the mistress sympathize with him and give into sex.
Stanza I continue to explain the speaker’s position by letting the mistress know that, if they were in that fantastical world, he would abide by the mistress’ rules; that is, if time were not a factor. He says, “I would love you ten years before the Flood: and you should if you please refuse / till the conversion of the Jews” (Marvel stanza I). The conversion talked of in this context is the end of time when Christ will come to take Jews to heaven. Urgency and time would not count in this ideal world.
The next lines show that the speaker is not interested in beauty; all that he wants is love and sex, period. “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow” (Marvel stanza I). Generally, beauty comes in form of a rose; however, he chooses to use vegetable. “Instead of the rose, he resorts to the notorious ‘vegetable’ to define not beauty but love” (Rees 95).
Second stanza underlines the themes of this poem viz. time, sex, mortality, freedom, and confinement. Time and space are irredeemable and once lost, they cannot be recovered. “But at my back I always hear / times winged chariot hurrying near, And yonder all before us lye deserts of vast eternity” (Marvel stanza II).
In a horrifying stunt, the speaker imagines the mistress in death. There is fear in the speaker’s mind. In this eternity, there is no pleasure and there is neither time nor space. These fears comes out clearly when he says, “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound / my echoing song; then worms shall try / that long preserved virginity: / And your quaint honor turn to dust; / and into ashes all my lust” (Marvel stanza II).
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This part gives the mistress a choice to make. After all, even if she conserves her virginity, worms will ultimately break and eat it. Now the question here is whether she would preserve her virginity for worms or lose it to a man who loves her seriously. This is too compelling and the mistress is likely to give in, given the fact that she does not know when the “Winged Chariots” will come.
The third stanza builds on this argument. After these frightening, compelling, and persuasive rants, the speaker adopts a sensible stand. “Now let us sport us while we may; / and now, like am’rous birds of prey, / rather at once our time devour / than languish in his slow-chapp’d power” (Marvel stanza III).
The theme of time comes out yet again. Man is powerless with time and soon or latter he will have nothing to with it once he dies. Therefore, the only time a person has is now, and this is why the mistress should have sex to ‘devour’ time.
The theme of confinement and freedom comes out clearly next as the speaker suggest the way forward. “Let us roll all our strength, and all / our sweetness, up into one ball: / and tear our pleasures with rough strife, / thorough the iron gates of life, (Marvel stanza III). The speaker suggests that they put their strength and sweetness in one ball.
This ball is having sex for it would eliminate the fear that they have for space and time. The ultimate result would be freedom. For the short time they have, they will have sex; time and space will become insignificant; after all, they will have enjoyed. Time may pass as quick as it desires, no more fear; freedom will have come at last.
To cap it all, he says, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run” (Marvel stanza III). Even though time will not wait for these lovers, they can choose to enjoy the present time by doing what is necessary; that is, having sex now to eliminate the fear of being caught up by time and space.
The bottom line here is, yesterday is gone, and tomorrow may never be; therefore, the only time that they have is now for they are sure of it. The themes of time, sex, mortality, freedom and confinement, tie closely to the meaning of this poem.
The meaning of this poem is that, people are not sure of what will happen tomorrow and they should do what they have to do now, for tomorrow may never be and time may rob them of what belongs to them. The following themes contribute largely to this meaning.
Time is one thing that the speaker fears the most. He is not very sure of what will happen tomorrow. This fear is so pronounced that he thinks that coyness or delay in doing what someone should be doing is a crime. The only time he and the mistress have to use is now and that why he says that they should devour it because in future, it will be of no use. Therefore, it is better they utilize every single minute that they have.
If the speaker is in fight with time, it means that time is the enemy trying to take something from him. However, he can use this thing to fight back. Sex is the thing in contention between the speaker and time. The only way the speaker can win this fight is by having it now. However, it is hard to get it and that is why he addresses sex in a frank and frightening way. It is a matter of life and death and he has to get it.
Marvel uses the theme of mortality to emphasize how people should utilize every opportunity they have now. Ultimately, every one will die and if he or she will not have done what is required of him or her, then woe unto him/her.
The same way the mistress will lose her virginity to worms, people will lose the things they treasure most after death. Marvel emphasizes on calling to action those who have the tendency to hold back, to move into the life fully knowing that they will die whether they like it or not. No need to refrain from what someone is required to do.
Freedom and confinement
This theme comes out outright presenting two sides; that is, freedom and confinement. The speaker and the mistress are in confinement because they cannot face the reality of how powerless they are in terms of time and space. Having sex would result to freedom. Many people go around this life avoiding what they are supposed to do and this represents their confinement. However, if they do what they know they have to do, freedom sets in.
To His Coy Mistress is a poem that tackles the inevitability of death. Human beings are mortal; consequently, whether they admit it or not, they will be powerless with time. After death, nothing will happen. Just like this the speaker, his lust will burn into ashes and the mistress will lose her virginity to worms.
Marvel uses sex as the only weapon to win the war between human beings and time. After having sex, he will break fears and frustrations that have dominated his life for long. The issue here is not all about sex. Sex stands for the things that people can do today instead of waiting for tomorrow.
As aforementioned, tomorrow may never come. Marvel uses the theme of sex, time, mortality, freedom, and confinement to bring out this meaning. While mortality is inevitable, people can choose to have freedom by doing what they have to do.
Taken literary, sex takes the center stage in this poem and Marvel is in pain and fear. The fear of uncertainty drives him to address his mistress without hiding anything. He prefers to use flat language; if that is the only way, his message will reach his mistress.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress”. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Ed. Christopher Ricks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Rees, Christine. “The Life of Love and Pleasure”. The Judgment of Marvell. London: Printer Publishers, 1989.