Explore and compare the ways in which the poets present the relationships between men and women in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell, ‘Cousin Kate’ by Christina Rossetti and ‘The Beggar Women’ by William King. Consider the social and cultural contexts in which the poems are set.
For most pre-twentieth century writers, love and marriage provide ways to talk about relationships between men and women. Marvell, Rossetti and King, however, ignore marriage in favour of sex, and love, in varying degrees, is sometimes a negative force.
Men, in all societies and contexts, can be seen to dominate, but how effective that domination is, depends entirely upon the women involved.
Andrew Marvell, who wrote ‘To His Coy Mistress’ during the political unrest of civil war, creates a world in which relationships between the men and women are extremely problematic. Fifty years before, a female monarch, who held the power of life and death over her subjects, challenged the ideas of gender that attempted to describe women as a silent ornament.
Consequently, the poem tries to make sense of the ambiguities of male-female relationships, whilst also strengthening emerging motions of romantic love.
The title of the poem declares the adoration and sexual desire of its persona for his mistress. “Coy” implies that she is shy and innocent, a passive figure, hunted and owned by his “amorous birds of prey”. But this sort of female categorisation is not as simple as it first appears. In the 17th century, “coy” also suggested flirtatiousness. She seems to be actively encouraging his attentions.
“Mistress”, for a modern reader, furthers this, creating a picture of a woman who defies the expectations of the time. She seems sexually confident and in control. The conflict between the women-as- possession and woman-as-temptress continues throughout the poem.
Nevertheless, it is the passive female to whom Marvell draws most attention. He does the actions, for example, the “lov[ing]” the ador[ing]”, while she remains in a “state”, not moving or responding. He describes in detail each part of her body,
“An hundred ears should to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast.”
This seems to suggest that the woman is merely made of “part(s)”, a body with no mind. References to “the conversion of the Jews” and “vast eternity” links to God and the Bible. On one hand, this creates a woman who is divine. But, it also indicates the distance between men and women. Women are mysterious and unknown to men. The reference to the “Ganges” conveys the exotic nature of India for people of the time. The sensual mysterious Ganges, like the woman, contrasts with the mundane Humber of the man. The distance between the two places, and the people, is vast, and can never be reduced. The “thousands of years” and the enjambment that reflects the “passing of time” suggest that the gap will never be bridged.
Yet there are many attempts to do just that, via sex. It is in the late 16th and 17th century that the idea of romantic and sexual love emerges. The “rubies” that were believed to preserve virginity, imply something sexual about male and female relationships that had only been previously recognised as necessary for reproduction. “Devouring,” suggests that he wants to have sex with her, but it is also used in the sense of to consume and to own. The kind of violence in “devouring”, “prey”,”tear” and “rough” suggests that the man’s physical domination gives him control of the woman, through sex. Nevertheless, there is desperation in his language. Worms will take her virginity, which is a disgusting image. The man needs to satisfy his own desires. The woman’s seemingly passive resistance gives her a surprising sense of power. She controls the situation, and she is at the centre of the poem. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is a poem of opposites: male and female; exotic and mundane; passivity and activity; dominance and resistance. But the inclusion of sex into society muddies the water considerably. Male and female relationships are more complex than they first appear.
This sense of complexity and ambiguity is more obvious in the Victorian period. As was the case with Queen Elizabeth I, the presence of a female ruler, Victoria, is troubling for such a male-dominated society. Christina Rossetti and the female ‘I’ of her poem, ‘Cousin Kate’, however, are not the silent ornaments that Marvell ‘adore [d].’ The ‘cottage maiden’ is allowed to speak, and the reader would expect what she says to be both liberating and powerful. But, unlike the ‘Coy Mistress’, the real mistress of ‘Cousin Kate’ is made ‘unclean’ by the dishonour of being an unmarried mother in Victorian society. Women seem to be even more trapped by men.
The most notable feature of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is the way in which it makes women ornaments to be adored. Women in ‘Cousin Kate’ are divided into two categories: those who men adore and those who adore men. Kate is adored as ‘Lady’; the mistress of Marvell’s poem is similarly praised,
‘For, Lady, you deserve this state.’
The reason for this adulation seems to be that both women resist male advances. Kate is ‘bound…with his ring.’ ‘Bound’ suggests trapped, and that marriage is a prison. But this is still socially preferable to being ‘an outcast thing’, the judgment for women who lose their virginity outside of marriage.
The language that Rossetti uses to describe sexuality is very similar to that of Marvell. In ‘Cousin Kate,’ the man ‘lure[s]’ the woman, which suggests that she is his bait or victim. He can ‘win her’, like ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and the ‘devour[ing]’ bird of prey. The act of sex seems to assert male supremacy. Perhaps this is why Marvell seemed so keen to bed his mistress! But whereas man’s desperation for sex gave the woman power, here, he wears the woman,
‘…Like a silken knot,
He changed me like a glove;’
She is reduced to a ‘play thing’, a child’s toy who has no importance and is easily forgotten. The glove image is important, too. Not only does it make her an accessory that can be bought and thrown away, a glove without a hand inside is an empty space, which needs to be filled and owned by a man. The act of ‘fill[ing]’ the space has sexual overtones, and the anger and regret in her language (‘Woe’s me for joy thereof’) suggests that the woman is always powerless against penetration. The result of being used in this way is reflected in the poem. Her words do not make complete sense. The paradoxes of ‘shameless, shameful’ and ‘my shame, my pride’ seem to show this.
Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ seems to question the power relations between men and women, however briefly. Men need and desire women. In ‘Cousin Kate’, male superiority and domination are confirmed: she loves him and needs him. The effect of this is to give men all the power. He is socially superior, the ‘lord’ to her ‘maiden’; financially superior, the ‘palace’ to her ‘cottage’; and morally superior, the ‘gold’ to her ‘dust’. These things don’t seem to matter to Marvell.
Both ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and ‘Cousin Kate’ reflect women as weak, passive, silent figures, at the mercy of men. But it is, surprisingly, the earlier poem that gives women greater power. Despite the writings and speech of a woman, Rossetti’s poem traps them further.
The importance of love and marriage in relationships between men and women grew greatly from the time of Marvell to the time of Rossetti. Both ideas are central to the power relations between them. William King’s ‘The Beggar Women’, written just after ‘To His Coy Mistress’ describes the relationship between men and women when neither love nor marriage are involved. Sex is, however, still central. The effect of this is surprising. The Beggar Woman, who is inferior in all senses, has more power than any other woman in the poems.
The Beggar Woman is an unmarried mother who carries her child on her back. In this way, she resembles the ‘I’ of ‘Cousin Kate’. But she is also wise and cunning. The gentleman uses the language of hunting to describe women, in much the same way as Marvell and Rossetti. She is ‘game’ to be won. But here the woman lures him into the circumstance where she can give him her child. She is also in control of her own sexuality, using her ‘fresh’ cheeks to gain power and advantage over men. She is not the passive female victim of the previous poems either. Indeed, the fact that the poet mentions her ‘trade’ suggests that she might be a prostitute. The effect is that using her sexuality gives her financial independence from men, which most women of the period could not have. Her motivation is not love or lust, but money for her child. Ironically, the poet nor the reader condemn her for it. We admire her wisdom and sympathise with the point she is making.
In fact it is the man whose behaviour is most questionable, in a far more explicit way than the aggressive ‘lord’ of ‘Cousin Kate.’ Because he is a gentleman, we would expect his behaviour to be noble and morally upstanding. But the violence of his language, ‘throw[ing]… down’, ‘break[ing] backs’ etc suggests that his actions are much more ‘lower class’ than those of the beggar woman. The extreme nature of his actions show a desperate attempt to control this wayward woman, but the excessive language hints that this control is failing. So much so in fact that the woman takes over the language of the hunt, luring him, like the lord to the cottage maiden in Rossetti, and the poet to the mistress in Marvell, into the woods. The relationship between men and women seems to have been reversed. She is no adored ornament.
The social and cultural contexts of all the poems discussed effectively silence their women, placing them on a pedestal far removed from the society of dominant men. Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ adores that woman, but his adoration serves to reduce her to physical beauty only. Rossetti’s protagonist is equally silenced, trapped by the shame of being an unmarried mother, at the mercy of the man she loves. Although the voice is female, she has no control or power. It is William King’s ‘The Beggar Woman’ who offers the greatest challenge. Financially independent, she needs no man, and her relationships with them are based on ‘trade’ rather than love, need and marriage. The relationships between men and women are always problematic and never easily defined.