“To His Coy Mistress”

Andrew MarvellIt’s poetry week here at con carne! To balance out the seriousness of Henley’s Invictus last time, here’s something a bit more whimsical. And much older; Andrew Marvell ‘s To His Coy Mistress pre-dates Henley by a good 200 years. Yet, both poems are about overcoming obstacles.

It must be said that the obstacles in question here are a bit different from the “bludgeonings of chance” that concern Henley. Marvell has something else entirely on his mind! And while Henley speaks of staying the course against all odds, Marvell’s advice is more carpe diem.

So for a little fun on Friday, I give you…

To His Coy Mistress

~~Andrew Marvell (early 1650s)
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.

coy-0I’m going to interrupt from time to time to insert comments about the poem. It’s fairly long, and hopefully you’ll appreciate (rather than hate) the breaks.

I love how the poem opens, “Had we but world enough, and time,” is such a great line. It applies to much in life, so the poem grabs me immediately with a powerful thought. It immediately proceeds to mention a “coy lady” which sounds interesting…

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.

coy-1This part gets a bit opaque, but he’s suggesting his love could travel all the way to India (while he remained behind — the Humber is a river in Marvell’s home town in England), and it wouldn’t matter (if we had but world enough, and time).

He would love her 10 years prior to Noah’s great flood, and he will love her (even if she refuse him) until all Jewish people convert to Christianity. [That last line is perhaps vaguely irksome in these socially sensitive times. Keep it mind it was written 400 years ago!]

Our poet hasn’t even begun to plumb the depths of his hyperbolic multi-millennial love…

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.

coy-2See, when old poets start talking about breasts, high school boys start thinking, “Hey, maybe this poetry stuff is okay!” Two-hundred years, per!

His love is vaster than empires (the Roman one would be the standard in question here — it spanned three continents) and lasts longer (again, the Romans; they lasted 400 years or 1000 years depending on who you talk to). [Of course, if you really want to talk time span, go for the age of the Dinosaurs!]

Having proclaimed the greatness of his love if time were no matter, he shifts tone to point out that it does matter…

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

times winged chariotThe line about Time’s winged chariot is one of my favorite lines in all of poetry! And after the brief blip of a lifespan, the empty desert of eternity!

Having introduced the idea that we don’t have all the time in the world, now he puts on the pressure…

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.

I do love that last couplet! And it sets a weird counterpoint to the idea of this being a romantic poem.

Having established a sense of urgency, now he makes his play…

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 amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

carpe diemAnd certainly one of my guiding principles has always been, “Now let us sport us while we may!” Time’s tide will wash away your days soon enough. Remember, you probably get less than 1000 “blobs”.

The same English teachers that we can credit with introducing me to Invictus and other greats can also be charged with introducing me to poems like this. I actually forget whether it was Mr. Wilson or Mrs. McGee; it easily could have been either!

Certainly I’ve been blessed in having parents and teachers that have exposed me to such powerful and explicative works.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to ““To His Coy Mistress”

  • dianasschwenk

    it would seem that men haven’t really changed much in 400 or 1000 years! Haha ;)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, now… are you suggesting women have? :D :D :D :D

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s definitely true that circumstances have changed for (many) women over time, but (to be serious about it for a moment) I’m not sure people have really changed in thousands of years.

        I was struck, way back in college, by how ancient Greek comedies are still funny — sometimes laugh out loud funny. The thing about that is: comedy is subtle and specifically human. For writers from almost 2500 years ago to tap into our funny bones that subtle sense of humor must have been very much the same for them as for us.

        I suppose we have different awareness now, different priorities perhaps, but I think under the hood we’ve been the same old humans for a long time. On the other hand, not having a time machine… who knows!

      • dianasschwenk

        I agree with you Smitty.
        Wait.
        What?
        Yeah I agree. I was being facetious earlier. Men and women alike, do so many things, almost by instinct, not knowing why…

        For instance men who have many partners are acting out early man’s instinct to procreate as much as humanly possible to ensure that at least some of his offspring survive.

        Women who seek out rich men with lots of stuff may be acting on early woman’s need to be with a strong man who hunts well and is able to provide for and protect her and her offspring.

        That’s just what I think anyway…
        Diana xo

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I know you were kidding, but if I just laughed, we don’t get to have a conversation! :)

        I think you’re totally right about the early wiring. The whole nine-month pregnancy, plus nursing, plus human infants need a lot of care for a long time, means women have some basic wiring to seek a stable environment in which that is all possible. There’s no reason men couldn’t be involved in child care, but there’s no immediately obvious reason they <should, either. Understanding the importance of the future purely intellectually requires civilization. (The state of education today argues we still don’t fully grasp that importance.)

        But, anyway, seems like the bottom line is that women (tend to) seek stable environments and evolve strategies to capture and keep mens’ interest.

        Meanwhile, men tend to be bigger and stronger, but we peak earlier. The general biology is that we spread our DNA early (using our own “capture their interest” strategies), but then are largely expendable as we defend the nest and hunt food. It’s actually an effective approach, but in intelligent beings it can lead to gender-based existential crisis. :D

      • dianasschwenk

        You knew I was kidding? How did you know? Anyway, I think I would have been an Amazon or something back then and went out hunting on my own!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The “haha” and the smiley gave you away! :D

        I can totally see you as an Amazon!

      • dianasschwenk

        and seeing as I’m not a-hem… that endowed, I wouldn’t have had to cut one off to use my bow and arrow…if you know what I mean… ;)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha!! I was going to mention that business, but then thought I’d better not go there. :D

      • dianasschwenk

        haha just spit out my tea reading that!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, then my work here is done! :D

  • elizabeth2560

    Ha ha!. I wrote my previous comment about ‘Carpe Diem’ BEFORE I read this poem and post. It is funny that I thought of that though. Of course ‘Carpe Diem’ has its place, but so does practicing the piano. :)

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