“Don’t be such a tease, love; we don’t have forever!”–or, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Have you ever wondered what was the best way to spur a potential lover to make the possible actual and real?  Have you ever tried to decide just which purveyor of public wisdom could give you a hint as to what to say?  Well, if you don’t mind reading a witty and rhetorically versatile 46-line poem from 1681 (or perhaps reading it together in a romantic setting with your chosen one), you might not have to look any further.  The Restoration poet Andrew Marvell put it excellently well in his short poem “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the word “mistress” represents only a potential sometimes, not necessarily an actual physical lover.  It may, in fact, be a woman whom one admires and addresses poems to, or it may be an actual mistress in the physical sense.  Yet, in this poem, the physical interaction doesn’t seem to have happened yet, which is the source of the lover-poet’s grievance.  Let’s give it a quick read, shall we?

“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/Shoudst 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 should 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 wingéd chariot hurrying near;/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity./Thy beauty shall no more be found;/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:/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 glow,/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 pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life:/Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

This is quite a charming poem, but it would be foolish to ignore the definitely frank summary of what lies in the grave, also.  Let’s take the poem apart and explicate it in a standard way for a moment.  First, the lover points to the “clock” of their daily life and says that if they had time, only had time, that his mistress’s “coyness were no crime,” which is to say that 1) they don’t have time and 2) it is therefore a crime for her to be so coy.  Then using a rhetorical figure in which one says, “if such and such were the case, I would say so and so, but it clearly isn’t the case, so I’m not saying it,” he in fact does come up with a bit of the (hurried) and overdone praise which he assumes the lady is desiring before parting with her favors.  He therefore does say what she is wanting to hear, but says it in cagey brief form.  Just a few points in passing:  when he says that she would find rubies by the Ganges, he is using a standard symbol of virginity, rubies, and when he says that if only they had time, she could hold him off and barter and continue coy “until the conversion of the Jews,” he is speaking of an old-fashioned religious folk tradition which says that the Jews will convert at the end of recorded history.  Clearly, she cannot continue to deny the poet until then in actuality, because both will be dead by such an unimaginable time in the future.  He next says that if he could court her as she deserves, his “vegetable love” would progress very slowly, which is what she seems to want in holding him off.  This “vegetable” element is important because it was believed at the time that eating only vegetables was a way of curbing sensual appetites, and thus his “vegetable love” would have time to mature at a very slow pace.

Next, he tells her just how long he would spend on praising each part of her, but notice always the conditional tenses throughout the poem, those “had we [if we had],” “shoudst,” “should,” “would,” etc., all indicating in this case conditions contrary to fact.  He admits that she certainly deserves this amount of time for her praise (and of course he’s using the figure of hyperbole, or extended exaggeration, here), and that he would not love “at lower rate,” which suggests a slightly mercantile metaphor of exchange, his praise and adulation in exchange for her maidenhead, which is the subject of the next part of the poem.

First, he brings up the subject of time directly again, and tradition has it that when he says “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near,” Marvell is expressing his awareness of the difference in their ages, he being a somewhat older man to her younger years and bloom of youth.  He in a sense makes a desperate but quite articulate, direct, frank, and sneaky attack upon her vanity and attempts to affect her by an account of graveyard rot, in what were for the time both metaphorical and well-known terms:  he says that when she is in the grave, no one will see her beauty and he won’t be there to praise it; worms will “try” (pierce) her “long-preserved virginity” (hymen, or maidenhead), and turn her “quaint honor” into dust, as well as “all [his] lust” (his penis and the rest of him) into ashes.  The term “quaint” at the time was a standard pun upon “cunt,” and so he is moving in for the bald and forthright rhetorical “kill shot,” trying to encourage her by a different and quite original plea to her vanity.

The rest is very obvious.  He praises her again for the “youthful hue” which “Sits on thy skin like morning glow,” and notes that her soul is willing, and she is as aching with passion as he (“every pore” has “instant fires”).  He suggests that like birds of prey they bolt the “food” of their love rather than letting time eke them out little by little.  In suggesting that they put their “sweetness” all into “one ball,” he is invoking a game image of the several different games like croquet that were played at the time, only their play is quite serious, because they are rolling this “ball” not through wickets, but “Thorough the iron gates of life.”  One alternate explanation is that the ball is a missile aimed at a city under fire, and the iron gates are the city walls.  As the hymen is torn in the initial act of love, so the lovers will “tear our pleasures with rough strife,” yet though there is an element of truthful roughness in the language, their pleasures are still seen as pleasures.  The reference to being unable to make the sun stand still is a reference to the myth of Zeus, the Greek father of the gods, who made the night remain for a week so that he could experience love with Alcmena, a mortal.  What this part of the poem in effect means is that though the lovers cannot do what Zeus did, they can make their sun “run,” that is, they can force the days and nights to pass quickly in their enjoyment of each other.

The virtuosity of this poem I think I have indicated, and I believe it’s quite clear that this poem is a masterpiece of the “make much of time,” or “make hay while the sun shines” genre.  So, the next time you’re genuinely in a pickle and need a persuasive set of reasons as to why a lover should pay attention to your pleas, you could do worse than quote Andrew Marvell’s poem–you might succeed with such a master at your shoulder, and the worst that could happen to you is probably receiving an “Oooh, gross; how can you say that to me?” when you explain the graveyard bits!  Oh, well; maybe it just wasn’t “meant to be.”  At least you learned a great poem, and that’s something.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

8 responses to ““Don’t be such a tease, love; we don’t have forever!”–or, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

  1. Richard Gilbert

    A delightful explication of this poem, Victoria! I had no recollection it was so . . . earthy.


    • Yes, I think the earthiness is easy to overlook in the grace with which the “carpe diem” theme is explored, yet there it is, right there on the page, and Marvell knew what he was about. I think I can recall the excellent lecture still from Lady Mary Anne Radzinowitz, who was a guest lecturer at the point in the year when we were doing this poem in one of my survey courses as an undergraduate. If you think it’s mildly shocking to see me write this explication on the page, you should’ve heard how she went about teaching hers! It’s funny how Americans always assume that Brits are ultra-correct: nothing like hearing the word “quaint” explicated frankly in a proper British accent, or hearing a member of the aristocracy imply that everyone in the room was guilty of “vegetable love” and holding off!


  2. Blimey, if they taught this sort of stuff in schools, I am sure the kids would be hooked. It is nice to have an alternative to the overly romantic and chaste poems.

    I shall perhaps think twice about my choice of the word quaint now, language is definitely fascinating and full of chicanery to the modern purveyor.


    • I think in the average school, they’re afraid the rhetoric of such a poem might work wholesale, in which case they would have pandemonium and mayhem on their hands. I didn’t get wind of this kind of interpretation until I was an undergraduate, and it’s funny how amazed and naive we all were that “people back then” even knew such words! People back then, after all, originated them, though in our contemporary language, you don’t need to be nervous about using the word “quaint.” It has to some extent lost its punning power; you would in fact have to say something like “I find her ‘quaint,’ in the Restoration sense of the term,” or etc., to get the same meaning, and then you’d probably have to explain your joke, so don’t worry too much. But if you think this is adventurous, try reading John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680). He wrote poems about sexual adventures, the pox, homosexual and bisexual encounters, fights, etc.; his was a brawling, whoring world-view. Here’s one example of a stanza: “Nor shall our love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,/When each the well-looked linkboy strove t’enjoy,/And the best kiss was the deciding lot/Whether the boy used you, or I the boy.” True, he’s among the most debauched and decadent of English poets, but they are out there. Just in case you’re curious (hope I haven’t bored you).


  3. This was a great read. Fascinating enough, it was just yesterday that I engaged in a lengthy discussion about how literature is mistaught in modern schools. Something like this would definitely engage.


    • Thanks for the compliment, but most of my work is done for me when the poet is so gifted. And he was considered a “minor” poet! Basic explication of a poem often helps a lot, though there are some taboo subjects at the younger age levels.


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