A summary of a classic poem of seduction
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is one of the most famous poems of the seventeenth century, and probably the most famous poem Andrew Marvell (1621-78) ever wrote. It’s a classic seduction poem, which sees Marvell endeavouring to persuade his would-be lover, or ‘mistress’, to go to bed with him. As well as being a seduction lyric, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is also a carpe diem poem, which argues that we should ‘seize the day’ because life is short. Here is Marvell’s poem, followed by a brief summary and analysis of its language and meaning.
To His Coy Mistress
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.
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.
My vegetable love would 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,
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.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vaults, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
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.
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,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
First, a quick summary of ‘To His Coy Mistress’, which we can see as being divided up into three sections, each forming a distinct stage of an argument. In the first section, Marvell, addressing his sweetheart, says that the woman’s reluctance to have sex with him would be fine, if life wasn’t so short. They could take their time with everything if they had all the time in the world, deciding at leisure how to spend each day. They could even spend much time on different continents: Marvell in Hull, England, complaining about his absent love as he sits by the River Humber, and his mistress in India by the Ganges, finding rubies. Marvell would spend thousands of years praising the woman’s eyes (and breasts), because she deserves such praise and attention.
But such a plan is a fantasy, because in reality, time is short. This brings us to the second section of Marvell’s poem. What lies before Marvell and his mistress is not a full and rich succession of days upon days of lived existence, but instead long ‘deserts’ of ‘eternity’ – the eternity of death, rather than an eternal life of praise and courtship. In this future – which will be upon them both all too quickly – the woman’s honour and virginity mean nothing and have turned to dust, while Marvell’s desire for her will, like his body, be ‘ashes’. After all, people can’t make love in the grave – and we’ll be in our graves soon enough.
In the third and final section of ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Marvell says that, in light of what he’s just said, the only sensible thing to do is to enjoy themselves and go to bed together – while they still can. They should, like birds of prey, ‘devour’ their time at once, rather than languidly letting their lives slip by unused. Marvell ends his poem by exhorting his mistress to join him in rushing headlong at the ‘gates’ barring them from full enjoyment of life, using his strength and her sweetness to create a ‘ball’, like a cannonball, which can be used to bombard and destroy the ‘iron gates of life’. We cannot make time stand still for us, Marvell concludes, but we will make time fly by enjoying ourselves and making the most of life.
This much constitutes the substance of Marvell’s poem, in summary. Several specific moments in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ have occasioned much analysis. For example, what does Marvell mean by referring to his ‘vegetable love’? Critics have tended to interpret this as a reference to the slow, organic growth of vegetables in the ground: given enough time, Marvell seems to be saying, my love would grow to be bigger than whole empires. (Some critics have also interpreted this as a bawdy allusion to Marvell’s own ‘vegetable’ between his legs – a marrow perhaps?) Something else often remarked upon by critics of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is the violent and macabre depiction of sex: does the image of ‘tear[ing] our pleasure with rough strife / Thorough the iron gates of life’ refer to breaking the hymen? The mistress, we already know, is a virgin: if she doesn’t yield to Marvell’s entreaties, worms will be the ones taking her virginity (when they devour the rest of her too).
Indeed, that reference to worms makes us wonder whether Marvell, in writing ‘To His Coy Mistress’, had Shakespeare’s Sonnets in mind – especially the early Sonnets which see Shakespeare trying to persuade the Fair Youth to sire an heir. Both ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Procreation Sonnets’ have essentially the same message: carpe diem, ‘seize the day’. The difference is that Shakespeare wants the Youth to go to bed with someone else, whereas Andrew Marvell wants his mistress to yield to him. Still, much of Marvell’s poem can be analysed in the same way as Shakespeare’s early Sonnets: in Sonnet 6, for instance, Shakespeare urges the Fair Youth not to be stubborn, because he is far too beautiful to let death win, and to end up with the worms that feed on him in the grave as his only heir or beneficiary. A productive discussion could be had by analysing ‘To His Coy Mistress’ alongside Shakespeare’s Procreation Sonnets.
We strongly recommend The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), which contains all of his poetry along with extensive notes. For more discussion of Marvell’s poetry, see our analysis of his ‘The Garden’ and our discussion of his ‘Bermudas’.