John Donne’s The Flea vs Andrew Marvell’s to His Coy Mistress: Strong Metaphysical Lines

Categories: Andrew Marvell

Examine the view that Andrew Marvell presents the speaker in this poem as having a light-hearted attitude towards (life and) love?

Within the poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell, the speaker may be interpreted as having a light-hearted attitude towards love. On the other hand, it may emphasise the importance of ‘carpe diem’ theme, where time is important and they must seize the day, while they have the chance. Andrew Marvell was a well-known metaphysical poet, often using images and word play to express complex emotions and ideas.

His work may be regarded as humorous due to the use of satire as a way of mocking other poets. The poem is spoken by an anonymous man, addressed to an anonymous woman. The poems fits into the ‘carpe diem’ theme, due to the speaker explaining how due to the lack of time they have, they should ‘seize the day’ and sleep together while they can.

The poem is split into three stanzas, which splits the poem up into three time frames.

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The first stanza emphasises speed and urgency and explores what would happen if they had all the time they needed in order for the speaker to ‘woo’ her: ‘Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness Lady were no crime’. The use of the noun ‘crime’ is a hyperbole which can be interpreted as being mocking of the importance of virginity within the time period. Marvell uses biblical language when referring to the ‘Flood’ (Noah and the Arc).

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He explains he would go back in time to ‘Ten years before the Flood’ and forward in time to the ‘Conversion of the Jews’ all while loving her. The use of the Biblical language appears to mock poems that discuss love in romantic and divine terms. Furthermore, the famous line within the poem refers to the speaker’s ‘vegetable Love’. Ostensibly, this may mean natural, organic love that cannot be changed, however it may be considered humorous and light-hearted due to connotations of the polysyllabic word ‘vegetable’, possibly referring to the male genitalia. The speaker explains how he would admire and compliment her, and focus on ‘each part’ of her body until he got to her heart. It can be argued that the use of the noun ‘heart’ could be a metaphor for love, or for sex. A vast amount of hyperboles are used within the first stanza, which can support the idea that Marvell is mocking other poets. He says he would spend ‘An hundred years’ to ‘praise Thine Eyes’, and ‘Two hundred to adore each Breast’. However, this is all undermined from the outset, where he explains that this admiration would only occur IF they had enough time.

The second stanza deals with issues of time and mortality. Marvell uses unpleasant imagery to explain that when she dies, her virginity will be lost by worms: ‘then worms shall try that long preserve’d virginity’. Furthermore, Marvell goes against the conventional Christian views of death, where the bodies are believed to go to heaven. Marvell challenges these views by saying how the bodies will turn to ‘dust’, and will simply rot away into ‘deserts of vast eternity’. This use of imagery is to persuade the lady to give up her virginity now, as there is only one outcome in life and therefore waiting is pointless. Marvell appears to be mocking conventional love poetry through the LACK of flattery within this stanza, and the use of deathly imagery. Marvell appears to use sarcasm and irony when describing how ‘the Grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace’. He mocks images of death and decay by referring to the lack of sexual contact available after death. However, the speaker hides his opinions as facts by embedding the phrase ‘I think’ into the middle of the line ‘but none I think do there embrace’.

Within the third stanza, Marvell talks about what him and this lady must do now due to their lack of time: ‘Now therefore’. There is a switch with imagery, where bright imagery is now being used: ‘instant fires’. The use of this imagery aids to emphasise the need for speed, passion and urgency. Furthermore, Marvell uses animalistic imagery. He suggests that ‘like amorous birds of prey’ they should ‘at once our time devour’. This imagery hints at the speaker’s desires which are hard to contain, where they should not be waiting for death. The use of the pronoun ‘us’, and the determiner ‘our’ used throughout this stanza suggests unity between the two.

‘To His Coy Mistress’ may however be interpreted as a serious exploration of why seizing the day is important due to the lack of time. The speaker has used the scare of time to manipulate the mistress into sleeping with him. He speaks of the ‘instant fires’, ‘willing soul’ and ‘amorous birds of prey’, to emphasise the importance of being quick in their actions due to time running out. The use of death imagery is very vivid and unattractive, with references to ‘worms’. The speaker warns his mistress that mortality is serious and they need to act quickly.

In conclusion, Marvell presents the speaker in the poem as having a mostly light-hearted view of love due to the use of humour and imagery, and by going against the conventional Christian views of death.

Updated: Feb 14, 2024
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John Donne’s The Flea vs Andrew Marvell’s to His Coy Mistress: Strong Metaphysical Lines. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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