Commentary on To his Coy Mistress

The poem is divided into three clearly defined section parts:

  • The way the lovers could behave if they had all the time in the world (ll.1-20)
  • Reminder that life is short and that death will bring an end to lovemaking (ll.21-32).
  • The need to make the most of the brief time available (ll.33-46).

Part one

The poem starts with a conditional: ‘Had we but...Time'. The implication is that the lovers do not, setting the poem at the opposite extreme from Donne's The Sunne Rising, which boldly asserts that the lovers control their own time, and the sun is their servant. Marvell's verbs go into the conditional tense: ‘would sit', ‘should'st ... find', ‘should ... refuse ... grow ... whatever'. So although his suggestions seem positive enough, they are an illusion.

The suggestions are, of course, comic absurdities. This is the form of Metaphysical wit that Marvell uses for his conceits. He would be willing to go back almost to the beginning of time in the Bible and ‘Love you ten years before the Flood', a reference to Noah's flood (Genesis 7:17-24). She, on the other hand, could delay her response ‘till the Conversion of the Jews', an idea which Marvell uses to symbolise an unknown future timescale. His love could be ‘vegetable': which will keep growing and reproducing itself - slowly. The fact that it is one of the lower forms of life is part of the irony. As is the fact that we are irresistably reminded through his image of the speaker's (actually almost immediate) erection.

Marvell parodies the Elizabethan love convention of listing the mistress's bodily parts, and praising each one separately – eyes, forehead, breasts – by giving absurd amounts of time to be spent in praising each part. He slyly hints at ‘the rest'. Each shall have an ‘age', referring to Greek mythology in which human history could be divided into ‘ages': gold, silver, bronze (see The Golden Age).

Part two

This is a powerful section on time and death. The carpe diem (‘seize the day') theme is strong, as it is in Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd, or more genteelly in Robert Herrick's Gather ye Rosebuds. The tempo and mood suddenly change. ‘Times winged Charriott' sounds quite military, in pursuit of the lovers. With the prospect of ‘Desarts of vast Eternity', the vegetable image is replaced by total barrenness. This leads on to talk of dust, to which her ‘quaint Honour' will be reduced. ‘Quaint' contains a play on words. In the seventeenth century it meant proud and also ‘whimsical', as it does today; it may also be a pun on ‘queynt', which in the medieval period, referred to a woman's sexual organs. Her ‘Virginity' in death will be as barren: it has produced nothing but a facade. The reality of the grave confronts us as bleakly as it does in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet or some of the Jacobean dramas that followed.

Part three

Having mocked the Elizabethans in Section 1, then agreed with them in Section 2, Marvell follows their advice in Section 3. The Latin carpe diem (‘seize the day') motif is echoed in such violent phrases as ‘like ... birds of prey', ‘our Time devour' and ‘tear our Pleasures'. The sense of struggle is strong: either time controls us, or we it. So there comes the defiant ‘yet we will make him [the sun] run', echoing Donne's poem, a defiance which, we feel, stems from the frustration at his inability to make love to his lady.

Investigating To his Coy Mistress
  • Compare Marvell's To his Coy Mistress with Donne's The Sunne Rising
    • What are the biggest similarities and differences?
  • How does Marvell convey
    • the idea of time almost stopping?
    • the idea of time rushing along?
  • Do you think this is a very masculine poem?
    • What suggests it is so?
  • If you were the one being addressed by Marvell, would you be persuaded or put off?
  • Is the poem meant to be persuasive?
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