Structure and versification in To his Coy Mistress

Closed couplets

To his Coy Mistress is a non-stanzaic iambic tetrameter poem rhyming as couplets. The couplet form runs very closely with the grammatical structure to form a ‘closed couplet', as it did in the later seventeenth and eighteenth century. It is a form that lends itself to epigram, irony and satire. And although Marvell does use it like that – the grave as ‘a fine and private place' is a good example – he also can use the closed couplet quite passionately, as in ‘Let us roll all our Strength ... '.

However, at significant moments the closed couplet form breaks down. Lines 25-27 are a good example, where the line runs on after ‘shall sound' into the next couplet. The final couplet is technically closed, in that it is a complete sentence in itself, but the first line runs on into the second, so the rhythmic flow carries into the second line, giving a less than neat finish - quite deliberately, since, sense-wise, it is not an achieved solution, but only a hoped for one.


Marvell also uses a figurative structure we have not seen so clearly in other metaphysical poems: the antithesis. Again, this developed to be a favourite device with later poets, being part of their epigrammatic turn of mind. It is a neat way of putting opposites together: ‘not X but Y'. So the final couplet is an antithesis: ‘We cannot do X, but we can do Y'.

Investigating To his Coy Mistress
  • Consider the structure of To his Coy Mistress
  • The final couplet contains antithesis
    • Can you find any other examples of antithesis?
  • Look at the metre of the last couplet.
    • What do you notice about the stress patterns?
  • Pick out any of the rhymes that seem to you to work well
    • How does this poem compare to the poems of John Donne?
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