Reminder: The One Page Poetry Circle will meet March 12 to discuss Poetry and Seduction at St. Agnes Branch NYPL, 444 Amsterdam Ave. 3rd Fl, NY, NY 10024. Handicapped accessible.  

Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” RumbaDancersone of the most famous poems written in English, was probably written in the 1650s while Marvel was tutoring the daughter of Sir Thomas Fairfax. The poem has traits of the metaphysical and of the carpe diem philosophy. Although it seems to be written in order to seduce a woman, it is also about sex and love and time. The poem is in three stanzas. Our comments appear after each stanza.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy 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.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

Abigail: The first stanza describes love in slow motion, “vegetable love,” that can take ages and knows no restraint of time or place. Marvell’s reference to “the conversion of the Jews” shows a common anti-Semitism. According to the Christian Bible all Jews will be converted to Christianity before the second coming of Jesus which will happen at the end of time—a long ways away.

AnnaLee: I find many ways to read Marvell’s poem, but the most fun for me is to see it as three stages of a seduction, from foreplay to full arousal to a plea for consummation—as seen through the male narrator’s eyes. The ideas are sometimes disguised in metaphor and reference (who is being coy here?) and sometimes in straight-forward and frontal terms. At first the narrator seems to be cajoling his lady-love who is playing hard to get. From the start he tells her that if they had all the time in the world she would have the luxury to be as coy as she wants, even holding out until the end of time. When he says, “My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than the empires, and more slow,” I have to laugh. While he refers to something as benign and slow growing as a vegetable (even the word seems sexless), I read that his passion for her swells in the form of his ripe erection. He would devote an age to adore each part of her body in lengthy foreplay giving her lower parts extra time all the while growing more aroused.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Abigail: In the second stanza the narrator hears “Time’s winged chariot” and imagines the grave of the woman in which “worms shall try/That love preserv’d virginity.” Here the narrator seems to lose patience with his first approach and suggests the need for speed. Modesty is of no use since we will all die so soon—so none of it matters. The focus is not on romance or love but on carpe diem, the need to seize the day before the “quaint honour” of the intact hymen becomes food for the worms.

AnnaLee: In the second stanza I see the quickening of his desire and the reality that waiting may lead to loss of opportunity. He wants to consummate the act with her, before it’s too late and he loses his ardor or ejaculates. His references to “your marble vault” and “your quaint honour” seem to speak of her vulva for in death and ejaculation it would all be over. When he writes, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none I think do there embrace,” he tells her that we are mortal and if she waits all will be over and she will have no company there. So why is she saving it?

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
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.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Abigail: The third stanza attempts to reconcile the two views of the world in the first two stanzas and the narrator makes his real move. Yet here the images are not beautiful; he calls on the woman to sport with him “like am’rous birds of prey.” There is an impatience here that sounds less than seductive in its description of rough pleasure. Somehow Marvell, who is capable of such beautiful and imaginative verse, reveals that he has little time for the actual seduction. He promises to “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life.” Those iron gates remind me of the tomb again and I for one am not tempted to jump into his bed. Has Marvell outwitted himself?

AnnaLee: Finally, in the third stanza, the narrator can’t contain himself anymore. He is fully aroused and says it’s time to have sex in wild perhaps violent abandon like hungry birds feasting on meat. Since she is a young virgin, the act is sure to be bloody. Here he speaks again of her vulva but this time he refers to it as the iron gates of life. His manhood will penetrate the gates and a child will be born through the gates. In the last two lines I see many meanings and nuances. One idea I take away is, though we can’t prolong the moment of ecstasy, indefinitely, we can enjoy it now (seize the day).

What do you think the poem’s last two lines mean?