Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a poet and satirist. He had a subtle and introspective imagination, which is apparent in many of his poems. Also a politician, he was a Member of Parliament for Hull from 1659 until his death. Among his more famous quotations is: “The world in all doth but two nations bear, – The good, the bad; and these mixed everywhere.” Although somewhat outside the main Renaissance period, much of the wit and charm that we find in Shakespeare's sonnets are present in Marvell's work as well.

This is one of Andrew Marvell's most famous romantic poems, and one that has just as strong an appeal and meaning today as it did when it was first written.

 

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

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
Shouldst 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 winged 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 preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour 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 dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
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-chapp'd 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.

 

Tasks

  1. What is the speaker trying to convince the lady of?
  2. What examples of exaggeration can you find? Are any of the points the speaker is trying to make absurd?
  3. What tone do you think the poet is using in this poem?
  4. What does it mean to be coy? In groups, write the coy mistress's response to the poet's arguments. Try acting out the poem with the speaker's suggestions and the coy mistress's responses.
  5. Choose the line or lines which you find best sum up the theme of the poem.
  6. As this poem dates from the 17th century, the gender roles in it are well defined. Have gender roles changed? In what ways? Or has modern man changed that much from the speaker of this poem?
  7. Discuss in pairs why this poem is a good example of the theme carpe diem ("seize the day").

Explanation of a few words in the poem

(2) coyness: (here) marked by cute, coquettish or artful playfulness
(7) Humber: The Humber river. This refers to Hull where Marvell lived as a boy
(10) It was believed that the conversion of the Jews would take place just before the end of the world, in other words a very long time into the future!
(11) vegetable love: this could refer to his vegetable soul, that is he is in a state of vegetation while waiting for his lady to be less coy. But another way of looking at this is the fact that, left in the best of growing conditions, some vegetables will just grow and grow. The implication is then that it would be better to pick them at the best moment, when ripe for the picking, when at their best, than to just let them grow
(29) quaint: here this means elegant, artificial
(38) am’rous birds of prey: some may find his an odd juxtaposition of words (am’rous = amorous, i.e. loving), but the poet seems to suggest that their love-making should be all-devouring and immediate
(40) slow-chapp’d: with slow devouring jaws
(44) some versions of the poem change ‘thorough’ to ‘through’