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To His Coy Mistress–Andrew Marvell

Certainly the most remembered of Marvell’s poems is this carpe diem lyric, “To His Coy Mistress.” I would surmise that any number of randy undergraduates have nodded along in agreement with Marvell’s sentiments, for once reading a poem that spoke sense to their hormone-addled minds. How is it that this poem, which is essentially a piece of persuasion aimed at a reluctant lover, comes from the same pen as the one offering various pious religious texts? To some degree, the explanation for this is the same as that with Donne’s. Marvell outgrew his youthful exuberance and began to take on matters of eternity. Our attentions, however, should be on “To His Coy Mistress.”

But at my back I always here
Time’s winged Chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lye
Deserts of vast Eternity.

How correct is our poet when he points this out? Life is flying by. The wise person should make the most of it. But what aspect of the diem should the wise person carpe? In the youthful Marvell’s eyes, the answer is to seize at erotic love. Or is it?

Could Marvell be read as offering a sort of dramatic monologue in the voice of Christ as husband, speaking to the church as wife. I don’t believe such is the poet’s intent, but the interpretation is intriguing. The shortness of time becomes more poignant. The “long preserv’d Virginity” morphs from something admirable to a troublesome thing, a marker of contrary affection. Another couplet shifts as well:

The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Rather than simply challenging the reluctant mistress with an image of impending old age, the narrator evokes familiar Christian images. If the poem is read as a dramatic monologue, then the speaker is the master of the grave, the only person capable of commenting from experience. When he mentions that no one does “there embrace,” he echos Matthew 22:30, where we learn that in the resurrection, no one marries or is given in marriage.

Again, I would not suggest that such a reading is what Marvell had in mind. His mind, I would agree, lay on exactly what it seems to lay on. However, entertaining such a reading for a moment allows us to perhaps better understand how the pious Marvell grew out of the author of “His Coy Mistress.”

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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