Andrew Marvell (31 March 1621 – 16 August 1678) was an English Metaphysical poet, and Parliamentarian. As a Metaphysical poet, he is associated with John Donne and George Herbert (Wikipedia). Due to the inconsistencies and ambiguities within his work and the scarcity of information about his personal life, Andrew Marvell has been a source of fascination for scholars and readers since his work found recognition in the early decades of the twentieth century (poets).
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Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress”, talks about a very secular thing, coitus, in a much elaborated language and conceit, which is the emblem of Metaphysical poets. Throughout the poem the speaker, who seems to be a young man, is using the language as a mean to seduce, first the lady’s mind, then her body. What tangles the mind is the question whether the lady is fooled by him and gives up her body, or not; How does she react to what the speaker is saying. This paper is trying to show that the poem is not a monologue, and that there is a hidden dialogue running throughout the whole poem. It first gives a general overview of the poem, in order to highlight the reasons for starting up this poem. Then it tries to show what could be the answers of the Mistress. At the end, it makes a brief comparison between the mistress in this poem, and the images of ladies in previous centuries.
The speaker starts the poem with a logical argument:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime. (1-2)
Or later in the same stanza he would say that he would wait eternally for such conciliation. He starts flattering her by indicating that how much time he would spend for praising each part of her body. What is important here is fact that he only considers the physical aspect of the woman. He does not care how her soul or mind would cost.
The conditional structure of the first stanza, however, shows the reverse meaning. In fact, there is no time for coyness and hesitance for having intercourse. This could lead to the fact that the woman he addresses has already rejects his offer. That is why he is trying to make her change her mind by logic. There is always this dream of mastering the time, and therefore building a perfect world, but this is only a “Utopia” and have nothing to do with the real world.
In the second stanza, the speaker is trying to scare the lady by showing her the real world, or the so-called “ugly aspect” of life. He is telling her that since we cannot escape time, we become its victims:
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 you quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust (25-30)
Here, the speaker reverses the logic and tries to make the “real” world with limited time looks problematic and even repulsive to the mistress. Feeling less powerful, he is trying to lowering her self-esteem by indicating that her beauty is temporal, and that if she continues to keep her lovers away, she would die a virgin, and would never enjoy the corporal aspect of love.
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In the third stanza, he continues his discussion in the second part, by asking her to Carpe Diem and enjoy the life, even though time is flying. He wishes to persuade the lady to yield into his arms, before her beauty and charms fade away. In his opinion, even if they cannot conquer time, they at least can be in harmony with it:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we make him run. (45-6)
Although the poem has only one speaker, there seems to be a silent dialogue flowing throughout the whole poem. The very beginning of the poem seems to be the answer, or better to say, a try to gain what was rejected in the preceding conversation. Otherwise, there was no need for him to bother himself to convince someone who is absent or powerlessly silent. The speaker seems to be answering the question: “Why you want it to happen so bad??”
The way the three paragraphs process, shows the way the speaker is moving from logical reasoning to illogical and at some points even with force. He becomes more frank, and straightforward. The mistress in the poem is not someone to be easily gained or fooled; otherwise, he would not bother himself with such high-flown metaphysics.
The more the lady resists, the more the speaker persists. And the more the language becomes harsh, although being decorated with tender words. From the second stanza, the speaker does not seem to be watching what he is saying. There reader cannot read those mesmerizing words anymore; instead there appeared words like “worms”, “dust”, “ashes”, and “lust”.
Furthermore, the speaker, irritated by being rejected on and on, starts to mock the lady by indicating that if you do not yield in to this, you would die a virgin, like there would be no one else for you out there. As if he is doing her a favor. In these lines, the lady seems to argue in a more logical way, so that the speaker gives up his pseudo-logical argument.
The second stanza is more like confessions of the speaker’s real intentions. The interesting thing about the speaker is that he does not care to tell her that what he feels for her is not love, but lust: “And into ashes all my lust”. The following lines seem to be the answer to the mistress’s bitter refusal that she prefer to be buried alive than accept his offer, that’s why he sarcastically says: “The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace.” (31-2).
The last lines are the speaker’s helpless try to gain the acceptance of the lady. Although the poem seems to be open-ended, but what has been suggested above show that the lady has still no interest in him. The poem is not furthered extended because the speaker has said what he has to say, and has no more tricks.
In order to understand the way the lady leads the conversation, it is better to compare her with the images of a lady in the previous poetries. In Spencer’s poems, for instance, the lady is silent, doll-like, with the least intention of what is going on around her. Take Epithalamion as an example; the speaker urges everyone and everything to cooperate in order to make the lady more delicate and ready for her wedding night. There is not even a word, or the impression of utterance by the lady, even at her wedding. In Shakespeare’s sonnets the lady is praised, mocked, accused, but she is absent; there is no trace of dialogue in any of them. Even if she is addressed in the poem, the reader feels that there is no addressee, as if the poet is “imagining” the conversation.
In “To His Coy Mistress” however, the poem is nearer to the actual conversation, than an imaginary one. The poem seems to be caused and written by the words of the lady. She is a strong, intelligent woman who knows the tricks of the words. She, in contrast to the previous pictures of women, is an experienced lady.
The “Coy” Mistress in the poem is not coy anymore. She rises and speaks; rejects and chooses. Even if we consider her silent all through the poem, it could be concluded that her silence is stronger than his speech. This could be easily seen by the speaker’s endeavor to play with words and make them more persuasive in order to win her.
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