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Marvell & Herrick's Use of Carpe Diem

The powerful Latin phrase “Carpe Diem” is interpreted into English as “to seize the day.” When I hear this phrase, especially in the context of literature, I imagine a narrative written in order to explain a theory or moral. “To seize the day” is a powerful expression that applies to us all in a certain aspect of life. Making the most out of life is a predominant goal to most of us. However, themes of “Carpe Diem” were especially predominant in 17th century poetry and therefore plunged into the lives and feelings of the everyday commoner.

In a thorough analysis, one can clearly justify that the two poems, “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell and “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” by Robert Herrick are works from that period which deliver a clear theme of “Carpe Diem.”

Time is a recurring theme in Marvell’s poem from the very beginning, whether he is describing the vastness of his love or the urgency of the moment.

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The opening tone in the lines 1-21 is soothing and melodic as Marvell has chosen at this point to write in a very slow, evenly flowing and rhythmic style. As if singing, he uses an iambic tetrameter throughout the opening lines, describing his love for his mistress. Line 1 sets the mood of Marvell’s argument: “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime.” He sets the reader up for the Carpe Diem theme with an immediate reference to the unchangeable nature of time.

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Then he uses time in describing his love and vase eternity of it in lines 8-10: “…I would/ Love you ten years before the flood, / And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of the Jews.” The single line denotes an incredible amount of time, as the flood is a biblical reference to the time of Noah and the conversion of the Jews will come during the destruction of the world. If in reality they had all of the time in the world, this sort of eternal love would be possible.

His love could grow as the “vegetable love should grow” in line 11. Again Marvell uses the extent of time in lines 15 and 16, promising to spend “Two hundred [years] to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest.” After this revelation however, the tone of the poem in the second section immediately turns more serious and urgent. This tone is reflected in line 22: “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” In this section, Marvell continues to illustrate the severe and unchangeable nature of time, and its subsequent affect on their mortal bodies and love. This is not the time for his mistress to refuse his advances and protect her virginity because their time together is not in fact eternal. Their love and life together will end at the grave: “Nor in thy marble vault, shall sound/ My echoing song.” At this moment, Marvell also becomes more graphic in his description of death as evidenced in lines 27-29: “…then worms shall try/ That long-preserved virginity, /And your quaint honor turn to dust/ And into ashes all my lust.”

These same lines are metaphorical, in depicting the sex organs of his mistress as “quaint honor” and his own sex organ “my lust.” Continuing into the third section, Marvell’s use of metaphors is more extensive and his rhyme becomes more regular again, recalling the earlier subtle and smooth flow of tone. It is also in this section that Marvell agues his solution to the finality of life and death, in regards to their love, through metaphors. Lines 33-36, describe the physical state, both of age and moment. Using metaphors such as “youthful hue” in conjunction with “morning dew”, Marvell is noting his mistress’ youth by comparing it with the innocent freshness of the morning sunlight shining on the morning dew. He further speaks of her face flushed with desire in line 36: “At every pore with instant fire.” The impression is that his mistress is, in fact, desirous, but holding back in a timid manner which to him is a waste of time. Marvell suggests in lines 37-40 that they, “…sport us while we may/ And now, like amorous birds of prey, /Rather at once our time devour/ Than languish in his slow-clapped power.” This line begins the idea of Carpe Diem. Instead of letting time eat away at them, it is best to seize the moment of love as a bird would seize its prey. They should engage the power and strength of their love aggressively to thwart the ravages of time by living in the moment and giving into their desires. The actual act of making love is metaphorically described in lines 41-44: “Let us roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up into one ball, /And tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life.” Marvell concludes that although they cannot stop time, they can still rebel against the finality of time by living in the moment and consummating their love.

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Marvell & Herrick's Use of Carpe Diem. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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