Comparing and Contrasting 17th Century Love Poems

Categories: Poems

Taken at face value these three poems appear to be similar, but a closer look at the tone, structure, themes and language shows that they are all, in fact, quite different. Having said this there are still a number of similarities that link all three pieces together. To begin with they are all roughly contemporaneous and this is reflected to some degree in the style of the poems. All three poems concern love or lust of some shape or form, whether it is utter devotion, as in To his Coy Mistress or an account of sexual passion, as in The Willing Mistress.

One other similarity I have noticed is the way that all three pieces have a fairly rigid structure and use rhyming.

Firstly I will discuss the descriptive methods which are used to create the atmosphere and feeling of the three poems. Two of these poems put metaphysical devices to good use, albeit in quite different ways , whereas the thire poem relies on more traditional descriptive powers.

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The metaphor used in The Flea is a concentrates on a single conceit, whereas To His Coy Mistress has many different metaphors. The Flea uses one of the strangest metaphors conceivable to portray sexual intercourse.

"It sucks me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;"

This bizarre conceit seems more logical considering the belief of the time that blood was exchanged in sexual intercourse. Despite this I still feel that the metaphor is one that is too far fetched, and when pushed into romantic service it destroys the possibility for any loving emotion.

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Their love is described in these simple, stark terms:

"This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;"

What The Flea lacks in emotion it makes up for in pure intellectual ingenuity. The piece is designed to challenge and puzzle, and forces the reader to figure it out. Several sections are quite difficult to grasp at first and in some lines Donne uses mathematical logic to further perplex the reader:

"Though use make you apt to kill me,

Let not to that, self-murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three."

If the poem is read through quickly it appears to be nonsense but once the meaning has been drawn out there is a real feeling of satisfaction and a heightened sense of equality with the poet.

The poem uses very distinctive language which is strong, simple and colloquial, he is talking directly to the woman . The words are blunt and to the point:

"Mark but this flea, and mark in this

How little that which thou deny'st me is;"

There is very little visual imagery, virtually all of the poem being an intellectual debate seemingly removed from the real, visual, world. Having said this the imagery that there is in the poem, only two examples present themselves, is very intense and almost frightening:

"And cloistered in these living walls of jet"


"Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?"

Both of these examples use strong, dark colours and instantly images of the pulsating, smooth walls of the flea can be seen. The second quote is equally intimidating, I find the way the blood is purple instead of red, as if old and foetid, especially scary.

The second poem that uses metaphors extensively; To His Coy Mistress, uses many small metaphors to generate vivid and beautiful images and to illustrate a point intelligently. The metaphors are simpler and allow a great depth of feeling to be expressed, whether it is the passionate love the poem focuses on or a darker foreboding.

"My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow"


"But at my back I always hear

Time's wing�d chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity"

The second passage above has a dark, doom like feel about it and it shows how the poem, skilfully, manages to change moods very quickly. It goes from dreamy praise of the Mistress's beauty to a warning that death is always on one's heels. The descriptive pace of the poem keeps the variety of imagery high, which means the reader stays interested. In addition to these metaphors the poem uses wonderfully indulgent descriptive language. This example of exaggerated praise typifies the passion expressed at the start of the poem:

"I would

Love you ten years before the Flood

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews."

In this quote 'the Flood' is the biblical flood, which gives some impression of the strength of the feeling that the author has. These descriptive powers are also used to communicate more pessimistic points in the second half of the poem:

"The grave's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace,"

This also demonstrates a nice use of black humour, conjuring an amusing, if slightly morbid, image of corpses embracing. One other point I feel is worth making about this starting section of the poem is the way that each piece of excessive praise comes one after the other, giving the impression of someone really pouring their feelings out.

The Willing Mistress is what I consider to be the odd one out of these three poems.It does not use metaphysical devices; the descriptive passages in the first stanza are straight forward and generate a dreamy, pastoral atmosphere.

"Aymtas led me to a Grove,

Where all the Trees did not shade us;"

The lack of metaphysical ingenuity means that this poem does not have the same cleverness that the other two poems exhibit. The lack of imaginative metaphor and the fact that this poem is a simple account both result in a not particularly memorable piece. Having said this I think Behn has done a good job at creating a calm, lazy summer's afternoon, as if the scene being described is being viewed through a soft-focus lens.


Now I am going to discuss the meaning and purpose of these three poems. The meaning of The Flea is concealed behind an extraordinary conceit but in itself is fairly basic. The purpose of the piece is to persuade a woman to yield her 'maidenhead'. If this was meant to be a genuine love poem I would not expect it to be very successful given the belittling tone that Donne uses. The patronising line of argument appears in the first two lines:

"Mark but this flea, and mark in this

How little that which thou deny'st me is;"

This sneering tone, which suggests a lack of romantic emotion, dismisses the woman's feelings as insignificant. The sneaky author attempts to force the woman to yield in a variety of ways, he even tries to make her feel guilty of 'murdering' the flea:

"Though use make you apt to kill me,

Let not that, self-murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three."

Marvell's poem, whilst still having the same ultimate goal as The Flea, takes an entirely different approach. Marvell says that, in an ideal world, he woud like to seduce his mistress at her chosen pace:

"Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were not crime.

. . . . .Iwould

Love you ten years before the Flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews."

Lines such as theses show his true emotion, but since there is a lack of time the day must be seized. Donne , in comparison, seems to be hurriedly urging his mistress with short, sharp language and impatient reasoning. To His Coy Mistress seems to be the most philosophical poem. The whole poem revolves around the carpe diem idea. In the concluding stanza Marvell gathers this theme together in a final plea :

"Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up tinto one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run."

The darker section in the middle of the poem conveys a feeling of impending doom and realisation of the truth, that time is running out. This leads to the final synthesis of the poem, which describes what action must be taken to 'seize the day'.

The purpose and meaning of The Willing Mistress are altogether simpler, it being a straight forwards account of fact. This is one of the main reasons that it lacks the intensity that the other two poems possess. It is a conventionally romantic pastoral poem that does not set out to puzzle and challenge the readers' intellectual integrity in the way that The Flea does. Another significant difference between this poem and the other two is the fact that this one is written from a woman's point of view, instead of a persuasive man.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Comparing and Contrasting 17th Century Love Poems essay
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