A close reading. One note: strophe, antistrophe, and epode are pretty much the same as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and form the same syllogism Lometa explains so clearly.
To His Coy Mistress is an apparently straightforward poem. The speaker say that, if immortal, he would gladly spend thousands of years wooing his mistress; points out that, regrettably, this is not the case; and therefore suggests they sleep together now. This is not a particularly intricate argument.
When compared to other poems of the same era given the Carpe Diem label, however - poems like Robert Herrick’s To Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, or the work of Thomas Carew - it becomes clear that Andrew Marvell’s poem is a far more ambiguous and interesting creature. It is not simply a plea for sex. It is at once absolutely in earnest and deeply ironic, both an impassioned plea and a detached analysis, and achieves its effects in subtle and complex ways.
The key to understanding the poem above its simplest level is to understand that Marvell and the narrator of the poem are not necessarily one and the same. The first hint of this is in the title - To His Coy Mistress rather than ‘My’. The realisation of this possibility - that the poem may not be from Marvell’s point of view but rather that of an imaginary lover - makes possible a new layer of irony:it allows us to both admire the grandeur of the language and smile at the intention behind it.
The metaphors and images Marvell uses are nothing if not hyperbolic. His narrator promises
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews
- that is, until armageddon
. He also allocates ‘an age at least’ to the admiration of ‘every part’. There is more than a hint of unwarranted flattery about this, particularly in
For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.
(He would, of course: that, from the speaker’s point of view, is the whole point of the poem.)
We may therefore question whether he really means all of this. If he speaks in such extraordinarily high terms, is it not reasonable to surmise that his mistress cannot possibly live up to his billing? Of course, the enormous qualification which he has made to render all this possible - that is, immortality - renders it less impressive, and perhaps more believable. It would be an even more extraordinary claim that each breast deserved two hundred years adulation if he were limited to a mortal lifespan.
And this is the point. The high praise is immediately undercut, arguably to comic effect, by the antistrophe of the second stanza. Rather than finding rubies on the banks of the Ganges, his lover is cast as being invaded as a corpse by phallic worms; rather than reasonable and expected, as is implied by ‘you deserve this state’, her honour becomes a ‘quaint’ thing; and in the last couplet of the stanza -
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace
- she is effectively patronised, and mocked.
Even the final stanza, in which the syllogism is completed, and which is arguably the most impassioned and straightforward in terms of possible interpretation, contains a playful ambiguity which undermines the argument even as it is made. By saying
Not let us sport us while we may;
And now, like amorous birds of prey...
the character adopted by Marvell reduces the sexual act
to something base and animalistic, purely carnal and with little relationship to the eternal love which he has been professing up to this point. ‘Sport
’ is not the usual word for sexual congress in the context of true love: the strongest resonance I find in it is of Gloucester
’s exclamation at the beginning of King Lear
that ‘there was good sport at his making’ when referring to his bastard son’s conception. (Given the context here, it is not the fact that the encounter is out of wedlock
which makes the comparison interesting; rather, that the clear implication of Gloucester’s words is that it was just sex
, nothing more. This is not to take a particular moral stance over the correctness or otherwise of sex for sex’s sake - but given the continual insistence of the narrator that he loves his mistress, there is certainly a moral issue concerning his honesty.)
We may be struck by the sharp contrast between the use of the natural image here, which suggests only the physical and the urgent, instinctive need for sex, and the sentiment of stanza 12 of Eyes and Tears:
For others, too, can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
The one insists on humanity’s distinction from the animal kingdom by dint of the ability to feel; the other sees humanity at its most basic and irrational, as governed principally by physical needs rather than any higher sentiment. Such an impression is strengthened by the use of further natural images like ‘morning dew’ and the more suggestive ‘instant fires’, which again hints at a lack of control.
The nature imagery which runs through the poem is a powerful unifying factor between the three separate parts of the argument. The progression is an interesting one: it starts, in the stanza imagining an ideal, immortal world, with the inanimate vegetable; it moves, in the answering stanza, to an animal at the very bottom of the food chain, the worm; and it ends in its exhorting conclusion with the majestic bird of prey. The moves up the evolutionary ladder might suggest a similar attitude to the three different states of the poem in the narrator - again, rather undermining the professed desire to woo his beloved for thousands of years. This is a very different nature to that of the Mower poems or Bermudas, where it is largely sympathetic or at least ambivalent: here, the first image is about power, the second a strange mix of perversity and decay, and the third aggression and urgency.
There is an extraordinary tension between the possible interpretations here which is a large part of what makes the poem so rich. On the one hand, it can be read as above, as a cynical attempt at seduction for purely carnal reasons, and as such funny in its elevated language and contrast in strophe and antistrophe of high praise and dire warning, and in the way we can see the wooer’s deception; on the other, it can be taken at face value, as an impassioned and genuine plea to stop wasting time and consumate true love. Such a question of interpretation is inevitably a highly personal one, resting as it does on personal moral values as well as the text; the only general point that can be made is to say that it would be foolish to suggest that Marvell is exclusively suggesting one or the other. Marvell is certainly capable,as he demonstrates in poems like Bermudas and On a Drop of Dew, of writing unambiguous paeans, or of taking a single point of view and prosecuting it: he simply does not do so here. To take one couplet as an example:
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and yet more slow
...contains hints of both. On the one hand, the image is a majestic one, of an extraordinary love that would last forever, and grow forever; on the other, it is surely no accident that the narrator has chosen a metaphor which relies on conquest for its expansion. ‘And yet more slow’, then, may hint at frustration as well as dignity and grace.
Marvell’s language is certainly sufficiently rich to make the case for the poem as an overwhelmingly positive piece of work which largely endorses the narrator’s view highly credible. There is an almost elegaic, wistful quality to the strophe, in the way it laments the impossibility of this ideal world; and the image of the Ganges - the flow of the river symbolising at some level the continual passing of time, even in this immortal version of reality - is a powerful one. (It gains a certain humour, too, from the juxtaposition with the Humber.) Meanwhile, the antistrophe and epode are intense and urgent pieces of writing, and contain tremendous compressed erotic power. The sexual images of the second stanza are extraordinary: perhaps the most bizarre are the worms that
that long preserved virginity,
an image that recalls the strangeness of some of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling
, but the others are similarly powerful, in large part because of the density of the passage. Three (possibly four, if ‘quaint’ is connected, as Elizabeth Story Donno suggests, with the middle english noun ‘queynte,’ meaning pudenda) sexual images in the same number of lines is a veritable onslaught. We are left in little doubt as to the voraciousness of the narrator’s sexual appetite, nor the earnestness of his desire; and the juxtaposition of the sexual with images of decay makes the need all the more pressing.
The final stanza is perhaps the most powerful part of the poem. In it, the narrator neither resigns himself and his lover to death, nor pretends that it is not an unavoidable reality: rather, the spirit of the section is summed up by the final couplet:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we wil make him run.
The inevitablity of death is accepted, but not allowed to defeat or dominate. Rather than the arguably wishful thinking of, for instance, John Donne’s Death be Not Proud, the stance taken is one of pragmatic optimism. This is common, of course, to much poetry in this tradition; Marvell’s is distinguished perhaps most of all by the violent passion of the language. We find, in the last stanza, the following words: ‘willing’; ‘instant’; ‘fires’; ‘sport’; ‘prey’; ‘devour’; ‘power’; ‘strength’; ‘tear’; ‘rough’; ‘strife’; ‘iron’; ‘grates’; and ‘run’. These are all active, positive words, many of them aggressive and vehement, and almost all either single strong syllables or spondees. But this concentration of urgency seems entirely artless.
Marvell almost entirely avoids the cliches of Carpe Diem poetry. If one considers the final couplet of Horace’s original poem (James Michie’s translation):
Don't trust tomorrow's bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
from Robert Herrick’s To Virgins, To Make Much Of Time
, the similarity is almost painfully obvious, and continues throughout Herrick’s verse. By contrast, Marvell, with the possible exception of
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged charriot hurrying near
steers clear of cliche, even though he is addressing, broadly speaking, the same themes. As T.S.Eliot
said of him, he fulfils the common definition of the poet’s task: he makes the familar new. As Eliot also argues, this is largely due to his choice of imagery.
Nevertheless, the role of the structure of the poem should not be overlooked in any analysis of its success. In "Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot", Pierre Legouis effectively demonstrates how his use of the ode structure, and the syllogistic nature of his argument, is brilliantly ‘made new,’ and the argument is therefore made more powerful and more striking. In essence, he argues that because, strictly speaking, the logical conclusion of the strophe and antistrophe is ‘we should not tarry in the preliminary maneouvres of courtship’, the strengthening of this into the much more positive ‘therefore we must grasp the fleeting instant for love’ gains a newpassion and authority.
Finally, the poem’s metrical and rhythmic conceits aid its development a great deal. The use of almost exclusively masculine rhymes helps underline the growing urgency of the poem massively, and makes the feminine rhymes on ‘eternity’ and ‘virginity’ - two key concepts of the poem - all the more striking; similarly, the conflict between the line lengths and the sentence lengths - particularly early on, where enjambment is used a great deal, to disquieting effect - echoes the jolting fever at the poem’s core and precisely mirrors Marvell’s thematic concerns. His AABB... scheme, though simple, is exactly suited to the tone of the poem, since it allows the verse to rush ever onwards without needing to wait long for the close of a rhyme. And his occasional slowing of the pace of the poem - in lines such as
vast as empires, and more slow
is always measured and appropriate.
Carpe Diem poetry, with all its cliched connotations, may make the modern reader groan. But To His Coy Mistress is much more than a straightfoward exhortation to live each day as if the last. It is a complex and even disturbing poem, raising questions of the difference between author and narrator, forcing us to make moral decisions, and refusing to ever give us easy answers. It asks us to seize the day, yes; but it does much more besides.