Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress gives the reader a chance to delve into the mind of the narrator as he tells of his love for his mistress. This seems to be a simple enough theme, and indeed poets have been sounding out their barbaric yawps for quite some time over this issue of love, but what is so intriguing and memorable about Marvell’s take on love is how romantic it is (romantic in the romance way and not in the Romantic time period of poetry).
He gives more of a narrative account of his love instead of the more fantastical accounts which accompany any number of Poe’s poems to his ‘lost Lenore’ or even of a less stable vision of beauty that Rimbaud portends to in his Barbarian poem. Marvell’s take on romance and love is a very elegant poem; in this essay Marvell’s elegant style and the way in which he sets the scene with concrete and realistic details will be given strict attention along with the metaphor and use of allusion.
To begin with, Marvell introduces the reader to the subject of the poem even before the poem is begun. He applies the adjective ‘coy’ to his mistress which is a word full of connotations. With this word in mind in describing his mistress the reader is left to wonder why the woman is coy, or what makes her or causes her to be this way. Already the reader’s mind is a race toward an explanation of the woman. Thus, Marvell has succeeded in creating an air of mystery around the object of his affection and thereby placing an enigmatic tone to the poem even before one has read the first line.
In typical romance fashion Marvell begins his poem with turn of the line which expresses things that are not but if they were he states what he and his love would do, Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime. (Marvell line 1-2). The word coy derives in part from the word coquettish which is a French word used to describe gaining the affections of the opposite sex for personal gratification. Thus, it would seem that Marvell is painting out the object of his desire to be a woman who has a lot of vanity and wishes to conquer his heart. Thus, the poem sets itself up to connotative notions of hedonism.
This is states because the woman wants the older man’s affections for no other reason except to have them: She does not desire his affections for love or money or any personal gain except for her own vanity. Thus, the lines stating if they “had…but world enough” (Marvell line 1) then her coyness would be more highly permitted and not a ‘crime’. Perhaps Marvell included this bit about ‘crime’ because typically prostitutes are the ones who use coquettish techniques to acquire the attention of potential clients and thus the woman’s coyness is associated with sexual hedonism.
Whatever the cause of the coyness (employment of pure ego) it is clear that the narrator does not mind the attention. Although, another take on this notion of being coy could have more to do with the time period in which Marvell wrote the poem (1650)– during which a woman was typically shy and not forward while in male company and therefore this brave act of ‘flirting’ caught the poet off guard. Continuing on with the narrative part of the story, Marvell further suggests in his poem what he and the young woman would venture out into their world and do: We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day. Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Should’st rubies find: I by the tide (Marvell lines 3-6). Here Marvell gives a glimpse of his homeland’s exploration into the world and names exotic location by which these two could walk (or love by). Mainly, exploration was done in the East and this exotic atmosphere perhaps pairs well with how brazenly the mistress is flirting with the narrator. Thus, Marvell is coupling the woman with the landscape by which he thinks she could better flourish- a place where being coy is not considered a crime.
Thereby does Marvell transport this moment into a more exotic locale which further supports the idea that the poet is a romantic in the sense of wooing. To further illustrate Marvell’s romantic nature he states, Love you ten years before the flood And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews (Marvell lines 8-10). This again refers to having a world of there own in which apparently time and space do not exist in any rational form or according to physical laws of nature which would allow Marvell to have loved this woman since Noah’s fated flood (again, support for the romance of the poem).
The last line of this part makes reference to the Jews – a reference which alludes to the manner in which Marvell would love this mistress. That is to say that he would love her in the same strict fashion that the Jews never converted to Christianity despite the Inquisition which was a time period that at the writing of this poem had ended a hundred or years earlier but a memory that was still fervently in the minds of the people of Europe.
Marvell connotes many religious themes in this poem that help to show his knowledge of religion which further creates an atmosphere to the poem (perhaps Marvell is even stating that he will love this woman in a platonic fashion or nonsexual way until they are married as the Bible suggests should happen between man and wife). This idea of physical love and abstinence from sex until marriage carries further into the poem as Marvell states, My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires, and more slow; (Marvell lines 11-12)
This concept of vegetable love means that Marvell will love this woman for her self instead of for her sex. This is derived from the fact that Marvell suggests a vegetable love rather than a fruit love – fruits have a long association with sex and sexual passions and because Marvell chose to not allude to fruit but to vegetable (meaning vegetative perhaps and therefore dormant, or rather, latent sexual activity or sex after marriage) in order to support his proclamation of saving sex for marriage.
Also, vegetables are a deep root plant which further illustrates Marvell desires to love this woman with a deep love not a purely fleshy love. If then Marvell is looking for a more lasting relationship with this woman it is no wonder that in lines 13 through 18 he expresses such a love through ages. Although the reader has already been exposed to the type of ageless love Marvell silently promises this woman with the flood (an antiquarian allusion) he further tells of an ageless bond between himself and this woman as well as the magnitude of this love with the following lines,
An hundred years should go to praise Thine eyes, and on they 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 (Marvell lines 13-18). In these lines also, Marvell seems to telling of his hopes for this union. He desires a woman who has a true heart and therefore is not only interested in sex. He wants a beloved who will stay by him in old age as well as in their youth. Marvell seems to be placing a lot of emphasis on carnal pleasure versus what he perceives to be a more pure form of love.
Albeit both will exist in his relationship with this woman should they get married, what Marvell truly wants out of this relationship is a lasting companion. His many allusions to time seem to fit with this theory fairly well considering he mentioned loving her until the apocalypse (it is said that the Jews will not convert to Christianity until the end of the world which is when Marvell professed he would love this woman). However, it seems that Marvell has a change of heart toward the last lines of the poem when he seemingly begs the girl for sexual gratification.
Thus, the poem itself presents a timeframe of the poet’s thoughts leading from love to sex and back again. It seems that while Marvell desires a chaste union he also requires a more carnal pleasure right away. There may be something rather male delivered in the lines “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” (Marvell line 25) which speaks to not wanting to waste any more time being strangers but to gain union together. Thus, despite the poem’s romantic notions the poet’s theme remains clear – pleasure and passion and love.
Works Cited Cullen, Patrick. Imitation and Metamorphosis: The Golden-Age Eclogue in Spenser, Milton, and Marvell. PMLA Vol. 84, NO. 6 (Oct. 1969) 1559-1570. Hogan, Patrick G. Marvell’s ‘Vegetable Love’. Studies in Philology, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan. 1963) 1-11. Hyman, Lawrence W. Politics and Poetry in Andrew Marvell. PMLA, Vol. 73, No. 5 Part 1. (Dec. 1958) 475-479. Legouis, Pierre. Andrew Marvell: Further Biographical Points. The Modern Language Review. Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct. 1923), 416-426. Summers, Joseph H. Marvell’s ‘Nature’. EHL. Vol. 20, No. 2 (June 1953) 121-135. Tolliver, Harold. The Critical Reprocessing of Andrew Marvell. ELH, vol. 47, no. 1 (Spring 1980) 180-203.