To His Coy Mistress is probably the best-known poem of Andrew Marvell. It is a love poem in which the speaker offers a strong plea for the beloved to soften towards him and to relax her rigid attitude of Puritanical reluctance to grant him sexual favours. The lover, who may be the poet himself, builds up a really strong case and supports it with arguments which no sensible woman can reject. The poem has what is known as a carpe diem theme. (Carpe diem is a Latin phrase meaning “seize the opportunity”.)
Syllogistic Construction of Poem
The poem is written in the form of what is known as a syllogism. A syllogism means an argument developed in a strictly logical form and leading to a definite conclusion. In a syllogism, there are three stages which may be indicated by three words initiating each stage in the argument. These three words are: “if’, “but”; “therefore”. This poem is divisible into three clearly marked sections. The first section begins with “if: “Had we but world enough, and time.” In this line the word “had” conveys the sense of “if”, and the line means “If we had only enough space and time at our disposal.” The second section of the poem begins with the word “but”: “But at my back I always hear“. And the third section begins with “therefore”: “Now, therefore, while the youthful hue”. Thus the poem begins with the statement of a condition; then reasons are given why that condition cannot be fulfilled, and finally, a conclusion is drawn. The conclusion of the poem is that the lovers should lose no time in enjoying the pleasures of love. The conclusion justifies us in saying that the theme of the poem is that of carpe diem which means that one should enjoy the present day.
Imagery and Metaphysical Conceit
There are a number of concrete pictures in the poem, and a whole series of metaphysical conceits. The very notion of the lover that, having enough space and time at their disposal, they would be able to wander as far apart as the Indian Ganges and the English Humber is fantastic. Then the lover’s saying that he would love his mistress from a time ten years before the Flood and would spend hundreds and thousands of years admiring and adoring various parts of her body constitutes another metaphysical conceit. The picture of Time’s winged chariot hurrying and coming closer and closer to overtake the lovers vividly brings before our minds the rapid passing of time. Here an abstract idea has been made concrete by means of a metaphor, and this is a realistic picture in contrast to the metaphysical conceits noted above, though there is conceit in the image of Time as having a winged chariot. The pictures of the woman lying in her grave and the worms attacking her long-preserved virginity and her honour turning to dust are conceits because worms are here regarded as being capable of seducing a woman, and a dead woman at that. Then we have metaphysical conceits in the concluding stanza, where the mistress’s willing soul is depicted as giving out instant fires at every pore and the lovers are imagined as rolling their strength and their sweetness into one ball and tearing their pleasures with rough strife through the iron gates of life.
Wit and Irony
The witty manner in which the poet argues his case is note-worthy. In fact, the whole poem is characterized by metaphysical wit, and a streak of irony runs through it. The lover is mocking his mistress’s coyness. If the lovers had enough time, the beloved would be in a position to refuse till the conversion of the Jews. This is a witty and ironic remark. Then the lover speaks of his “vegetable love” growing vaster than empires. The manner in which the lover would have spent hundreds and thousands of years to admire her beauties is also wittily described. Here we have an example of witty hyperbole.
Concentration and Compression
The style of the poem is marked by compression and economy in the use of words. There is a concentration of meaning in the lines, and the poet shows remarkable skill in compressing his ideas in the fewest possible words. The idea of time passing rapidly has admirably been compressed in four lines, and the idea of all the beauty and charm of the woman coming to nothing has also been stated in only a few words. Some of the lines have an epigrammatic quality. Here are a couple of examples of the epigrammatic manner of writing:
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Even the two opening lines of the poem have an epigrammatic quality.