English Literature » Notes » To His Coy Mistress: Critical Appreciation
To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress: Critical Appreciation

The poem To His Coy Mistress is the masterpiece of the love poetry ever written by my favorite metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell. Though he has not written that many of love poems, this particular poem is enough to mark him as a great poet of love. Anybody who loves to read poetry and talk about them, especially the metaphysical ones, must NOT miss To His Coy Mistress. Let us try to understand the poem by critically looking at it with multiple perspectives.

Epigrammatic Style

In this poem, the Petrarchan hyperbole and Elizabethan conceits combine with a metaphysical condemnation of style which is almost epigrammatic.

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;

Marvell has shown his skills in the use of words. The style of the poem is mocked by compression of ideas and economy of words. Each line is burdened with serious meaning. The idea of time passing very quickly has admirably been compressed into a few words. An example of epigrammatic manner of writing is given below:

Thy beauty shall no more be found;Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound.

Carpe Diem: The Lover wants to have sex right now

In this love poem, the speaker offers a strong plea for the beloved to be soft towards him and to relax her rigid attitude of puritanical resistance to grant him sexual favors. The poet who might be the lover himself put forward strong arguments which no sensible woman can reject. It is built up on a “carpe diem” theme which is a Latin phrase meaning “seize the opportunity.” The full sentence in Latin conveys a significant theme in this world of illusion. It calls upon man to enjoy the present day, trusting the least possible to the future.

If not NOW, then NEVER

The lover reminds his beloved that time is passing fast and soon they have to face the desert of vast eternity. Otherwise, he would have taken a long time to soften her rigid refusal. If they had enough time at their disposal, he would have started loving her ten years before the great flood while she could refuse to satisfy his desire until the Day of Judgment. In the meantime, he could spend hundreds of years praising her physical beauty. Now she should yield to his request as her beauty will no longer be found on this earth. She will be in her marble tomb and he would no longer be there to sing her love song. There in the grave, worms will attack her long poetry served virginity. All her delicate sense of humor will then turn to dust and all his desire to make love will then turn to ashes. Finally, she will stay in the grave but nobody can enjoy the pleasure of lovemaking although it is a fine and private place. All their desires will end in nothingness.

Syllogistic Structure: Condition to Conclusion

The poem is written in the form of what is known as a syllogism. A syllogism means an argument developed in a strictly logical form and leading to a definite conclusion. A syllogistic argument consists of these stages and each stage begins with three words, “If,” “But,” and “Therefore.” In this poem, we find three clearly marked sections. The first section begins with “If”:

Had we but world enough, and time.

The first word of this sentence, “Had” conveys the sense of “If” and the sentence means, “If we had only enough space and time at our disposal.”

The second section of the poem begins with “But”:

But at my back I always hear.

And the third section begins with “Therefore”:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue.

Thus, the poem states a condition in the first section and in the second section, the reasons why this condition cannot be fulfilled have been given and finally, the arguments end in a conclusion. The conclusion of the poem is that the lovers should lose no time in enjoying the pleasure of love. The conclusion that Marvell draws in the poem justifies the “carpe diem” theme that one should seize the opportunity when offered without losing the present.

Metaphysical Conceits & Wits

The poem abounds in a number of fine concrete pictures and a series of metaphysical conceits. Marvell first gives us a fantastic picture. If the lovers had enough time and space at their disposal, they would be able to wander as far apart as the Indian Ganges and the English Humbler. Next, the metaphysical wit is found in the following lines. The lover would love his mistress from a time ten years before the great Flood and would spend hundreds and thousands of years in admiring and adoring the different parts of her body. The passing of time’s winged chariot hurrying and coming closer to overtake the lovers presents an image of a vehicle before our mind’s eyes. By using a metaphor the poet has turned an abstract idea of passing time into a vivid picture. Another metaphysical conceit is presented in the picture of the woman’s lying in the grave where the worms will consume her long preserved virginity. Thus the worms are shown to have the power of seducing a woman. In the last lines, the poet speaks of rolling all their strength into one ball and enjoying their pleasures with rough strife through the iron gate of life. This is surely a fine example of metaphorical wit which enriches the poem.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:

It has already been mentioned that the poet builds a fine case in the poem. In fact, the entire poem is characterized by metaphysical wit and a streak of irony runs through the poem. The lady’s coyness has been mocked as her lover proposes to spend thousands of years in praising her physical beauty.

Some critics have charged Marvell with lack of passion in his love poems. But here in this poem, passion is allowed to take its natural path; that as a love poem it is unique and that for sheer power it shanks higher than anything Marvell ever wrote.

To His Coy Mistress has the strength and passion of John Donne without his obscurity and bad taste and run easily and harmoniously. This poem of Marvell is the masterpiece of metaphysical poetry in this genre and it also shows a return to the anacreontic theme. It is repeated with a new intensity and comes from a heart truly deep and passionate and the love which is demanded is silent and forceful.

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