Language and tone in To his Coy Mistress

From mockery to frustration

Marvell's language is as much tied to his voice as to his imagery. His voice ranges enormously from the ironic and mocking to that of the frustrated passionate lover. The energy of the language matches the energy of these semi-suppressed emotions.

Spatial language

The language of part one is mainly spatial language, although the subject matter is as much about time. The ‘World enough' includes ‘the Indian Ganges', an exotic faraway river, to be compared, with a deliberate touch of bathos to ‘the Tide/Of Humber', his home city river, grey, uninteresting and full of mudflats at low tide. The flood is as much about space as about time, and the location of his praise on the woman's body is also spatial. But space is also separation: the lovers are apart; the female body parts are separate, discrete entities, each having their own ‘Age'.

This stands in contrast to the language of part three, which speaks of enclosure: ‘in his slow-chapt pow'r'; ‘roll … up into one'. The other enclosure is seen in part two:

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

One of the most brilliant couplets in the English language! How much is expressed in the two lines! This is the negative space that they want to avoid: everyone is separate in the grave, as opposed to the union of bodies in sex. Marvell paints a secular picture of life and death, with no hope, no existence beyond the grave. Pleasure only exists now or not at all.

Investigating To his Coy Mistress
  • Consider the vocabulary Marvell uses in To his Coy Mistress
    • Collect together words to do with time and see what patterns and contrasts emerge
      • How are the time and the space words connected?
  • Look at words that suggest wealth or preciousness
    • Is this wealth worth anything in the face of death?
  • What is the force of ‘my echoing Song' (l.27)?
  • What is the effect of placing ‘I think' in the couplet ll.31-32?
    • Take it out and see if the couplet feels the same
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