Andrew Marvell – To His Coy Mistress

Posted on July 30, 2012

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Andrew Marvell [1621-1678]

To His Coy Mistress

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 Loves Day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges side

Should’st 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.

But at my back I alwaies hear

Time’s wingèd Charriot hurrying near:

And yonder all before us lye

Desarts of vast eternity.

Thy Beauty shall no more be found,

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My ecchoing 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.

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-chapt pow’r.

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.

———-

Marvell’s poem proceeds by logical argument, a virtual syllogism.  “Had we but World enough, and Time” (like 30 thousand years or more) we could do a lot and do it right, but we don’t, so “let us sport us while we may.” Well, if charm and hormones aren’t working on the lady, try logic.  Oh yes, and wit.  Of course modern readers coming at the poem might encounter unintended wit.

Something like a found poem.  Even if not intended, there it is.

For instance, depending on the character of our own imaginings, “vegetable love” may evoke at least vegetation, a vast entangled vine spreading larger than the fields of Caesar, or, more absurdly, giant pumpkin love.  But here modern readers mistake Marvell’s point.

Among the intelligentsia of 17th C Britain, and Marvell as a metaphysical poet was clearly classified among those, the doctrine of three souls was a commonplace.  Only humans, as rational, partook of all three aspects.  They shared with animals motion and feeling.  They and animals shared with plants the ability to grow and die.

Thus “vegetable love” was not meant as an image, but as a philosophical reference to a love which is only vegetatively alive.  Any giant pumpkins that arise in the mind are merely a special bonus for modern readers, either for their own sake as personal images, or as a know-it-all talking point to impress people at literary cocktail parties—should a reader happen to attend one.

The second point of unintended wit is in the couplet:

  And you should if you please refuse

Till the Conversion of the Jews.

 Now there is wit here in the extravagant stretch of time dealt with, almost poker-faced, from 10 years before the flood to—more than 30 thousand years later—the conversion of the Jews.  But the conversion of the Jews was itself taken for granted, a commonplace, considered by Christians of Marvell’s day to be the logical outcome of the Biblical text.  Andrew wasn’t making any of that part up himself.  No, no, it wasn’t intended as part of the joke.

Doesn’t matter, though, Andrew.  Quaintly charming is still charming.

I remember once my friend Gladys using the expression “Twist my rubber arm” in the company of some visitors from Quebec.  It’s a variation of “I can resist anything but temptation” and is as commonplace a catchphrase as any in Vancouver.  But the Quebecois visitors had never heard it before, and their response was to throw their heads back and howl.

Some laughs are free.  The best policy sometimes is just to take them.

Posted in: poetry