Monday, November 16, 2009

To His Coy Mistress

A Video of a reading of the Poem.....


The first two lines of Andrew Marvell's To his Coy Mistress lead readers into a poem of persuasion, in which the speaker attempts to convince a mistress to love him, or, more to the point, to enter into a sexual relationship with him. "Had we but World enough, and Time, / This coyness Lady were no crime." His point - though softened with grammar choice - is that these lovers do not have world enough or time enough to wait for sex. Therefore the lady's coyness is in fact a crime. From these two lines alone, the reader understands the speaker's goal. The question becomes: How will he obtain it?

Many critics of Marvell's poem agree that its three stanzas outline clear turns in logic that the speaker uses. The first two lines lead us into a stanza describing a world in which the lovers live forever, the man courting his mistress eternally. He appeals to the woman's desire for control and flattery. The second stanza begins with a "But" that leaps off the page. Here, the speaker reverses his logic and tries to make the real world with limited time seem problematic and even repulsive to the mistress. Her dream world may be more desirable, but it is unattainable. In the final stanza, he suggests that there is something the two of them can do to make use of their time on earth: to experience their love through sex. It is a pity that readers cannot know the mistress's answer, for the poem poses a persuasive argument, without using some of the typical poetic conceits of love poems in Marvell's time.

Marvell starts by appealing to the woman's sentiments, as every smart man who wants something from a woman should do. He claims he would think about her while they are apart: "Thou by the Indian Ganges side / Should'st Rubies find: I by the Tide of Humber / would complain..." In this dream world, distance does nothing to mar the speaker's love for his mistress. The speaker chooses to glorify the position of the woman, who finds rubies where she dwells. In comparison, the speaker's dwelling place by the Humber seems dull and lowly, where he only complains. He forces the mistress to pity his position by describing their state of separation.

Marvell mirrors the first two lines of the poem with the form of the first stanza, moving from space to time. In lines seven through ten, the speaker again argues that in an ideal world, his love for the mistress could not be weakened by time: "...I would / Love you ten years before the Flood: / And you should if you please refuse / Till the Conversion of the Jews." Most analyses of this poem agree that the Conversion of the Jews references Christ's return to Earth, or the end of the world. In this dream world, there is no sense of urgency for the woman to do anything. The speaker will show a stark contrast to this later on; in reality, there is an urgent need to act on love.

The next few lines have been heavily debated about: "My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow." The most apparent interpretation, within the context of Marvell's time theme, is that a vegetable (undisturbed) takes plenty of time to grow large and ripe. A vegetable can be a simple metaphor for his love. Or, these lines could mean that time acts as nourishment for his love. There are plenty of ways that these curious lines can be interpreted. However, the most striking aspect of the phrase is its unconventional nature. In The Judgement of Marvell, Christene Rees notates this: "Instead of the rose, he resorts to the notorious 'vegetable' to define not beauty but love" (95). Marvell's contemporaries often used the rose, or a flower, to describe a woman's beauty. Marvell steers away from the stereotypical conceits. Not only does he use a vegetable as a symbol, but he focuses on "love" and the "heart". He does not describe physical beauty alone to flatter the mistress (he does bring body parts into the first stanza). Using unconventional conceits elevates the speaker's persuasive ability - his mistress has inspired him to be unique.

In the second stanza, the speaker sucks us back into the reality of time, space, and mortality. He brings time and space together as a terrible force: "But at my back I always hear / Times winged Charriot hurrying near: /And yonder all before us lye / Desarts of vast Eternity". He describes the mistress in her death, lying in a "marble Vault". Rees argues that, in these lines, Marvell conjures "...two opposite but related phobias: terror of wide open spaces, heightened by the fear of pursuit, and terror of confined spaces...In both environments, human action and pleasure cease" (97). So, the speaker amplifies the frightening aspects being alone within time and space in hopes of making taking action together seem favorable to the mistress. He becomes more intense as the stanza continues: "Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound / My echoing Song; then Worms shall try / That long preserv'd Virginity: / And your quaint Honour turn to dust; / And into ashes all my Lust." Based on this description, if coyness is not a crime, it is a characteristic to grow out of rapidly. If the choice is to experience sex for the first time with worms as a corpse or with a man who claims to love you, the decision is quite easy to make. She must seize the chance to give her body to him quickly, too, for time's Wing├Ęd Charriot could arrive in 50 years or today to take the mistress's life. The speaker counts on this thought to enter her mind by the third and final stanza.
By the third stanza, the speaker has finished flattering his love with dreams, and has buried them, leaving her scared of dying without experiencing love as something physical. He obviously feels confident, as he begins the stanza with a strong "Now therefore..." The language changes drastically from a loving, grandiose tone and becomes animalistic and rugged: "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-chapt pow'r." After hearing about human powerlessness in the face of time and the destruction it causes, it is rather invigorating to think that humans have the ability to "devour" it. In order to devour it, however, the mistress has to give in to sex, and not just passively. Marvell writes it as a very active "submission": "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." By rolling into one Ball and molding together, the lovers destroy any fears that space might instill within them. The speaker's desire for sex involves strength, sweetness, and strife - all are things that one experiences in the span of a lifetime. The speaker paints it for the mistress as if she really would experience with a short act what might otherwise take her all her life to feel. Thus, space and time no longer have control of them.

If those lines are not enough to convince her to take control of the time she has, Marvell writes a powerful and eloquent couplet to finish off the poem: "Thus, though we cannot make our Sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run." Time cannot stop for the lovers. They can choose to live life passionately though, pushing through time without fear. Marvell smartly ends the poem with a phrase that does not describe sex. If he ended it with sex, the speaker might seem too desperate, undermining his previous eloquence and his persuasiveness.

Marvell also picks up the pace of the last stanza with choice of phrasing. In the first two stanzas, he uses a lot of enjambment, putting lots of stops between the speaker's thoughts. In the last stanza, he does not pause to think. The words fly out of him fluidly, coming to a breathtaking climax. The flow of the poem could represent the actual act of sex for the speaker. The first two stanzas work up to the orgasm in the third. So the speaker persuades not only with word choice, but with the form that in which he delivers the words. The tripartite structure works logically and stylistically.

poems were written persuading one to love through pleasure during Marvell's time. Critics and literature lovers continue analyze To His Coy Mistress because of its unconventional, but still persuasive use of language. Or perhaps, readers are so interested in it because they want to know the mistress's reply. This will never be known for sure, but I imagine the speaker would be content with her answer.

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