To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
The following discussion of Marvell's poem is excerpted from Poetry (The Norton Introduction to Literature Series), edited by J. Paul Hunter, 1973. (Out of print.)
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Reading a poem is one thing. Experiencing it is something else. And experiencing it fully depends not merely on a reader's willingness, but on his readiness to cope with a poem's richness, resonance, and complication. Look, for example, at this poem—one of the most famous in the English language. The title suggests the situation—a man is speaking to his beloved—and before we are far into the poem we recognize his familiar argument: let's not wait, let's make love now. But much more is going on in the poem than this simple "message."
Seduction is a promising subject, but it is nearly as easy to be dull on this subject as on less fascinating ones, and the subject has inspired some very dreary poetry. The interest and power of this poem depend on more than the choice of subject, however useful that subject is in whetting a reader's expectations. No reader is likely to use the poem as a handbook for his own life, and few readers are likely to read it at a moment when their own lives parallel precisely the poem's situation. Its relevance is of a larger kind: it portrays vividly and forcefully a recognizable situation, saying something about that situation but (more important) making us react to the situation and feel something about it. Experiencing a poem involves not only knowing what it says but also feeling the pleasures provided by its clever management of our own ideas and emotions. All poems have a design on us—they try to make us feel certain things—and a full experience of a poem requires full recognition of the complexities of design so that we can feel specific emotions and pleasures—not only the general ones of contemplating seduction.
Let's begin at the beginning. What do you expect of a poem about a would-be seduction? One thing you can be almost certain of is that it will contain attractive images of physical enjoyment. The first verse paragraph (lines 1-20) contains such images, and so does the third (especially lines 33-38). The first set of images suggest the languorous, lazy appeal of a timeless world where physical enjoyment seems to fill all time and all space. First are images of rich sensuousness; the leisurely contemplation of enjoyment, the timeless walks in exotic lands, the finding of precious stones, the luxury of delaying the supreme moment. Gradually sensuousness becomes sensuality, and the speaker imagines himself praising various parts of the girl's body. In line 33, the poem returns to sexual contemplation but with much more intensity. Now the girl seems to be not only a passive object of admiration but a live, breathing, perspiring, passionate respondent. And a moment later, the speaker projects the beauty and energy of the love act itself. He suggests something of his anticipation of supreme ecstasy by the vividness and intensity of the images and language he uses: from the languid, flowing, floating suggestions of the early lines through the breathless anticipation of lines 33-37 to the violence of lines 41-44 with their explicit visualization of the union, the rolling into one, of "strength" and "sweetness."
But not all the poem portrays glorious pleasure. The second verse paragraph (lines 21-32) contains some pretty grim stuff. Instead of the endless languor of unhurried walks and exotic places in the early lines, we have anxiety and consciousness of time—a hurrying chariot, moving up fast from behind. And instead of the centuries of body-worship, eternity consists of vast deserts. Grimmest of all is the image of a different kind of fall than the one the speaker desires; the carefully preserved virginity of the girl, the speaker imagines, will be tested and destroyed in the grave by worms. The speaker summarizes with gross understatement and macabre humor in lines 31-32:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
The contrast of all that grimness of future dryness and death emphasizes (first) the unreal romanticism of the timeless world which, according to the speaker, the girl seems to want, and (second) the vividly portrayed sensual pleasures of a potential moment right now. Such contrasts work for us as well as for the presumed girl; in fact, they are part of a carefully contrived argument that organizes the poem. We might well have expected, just from the title and the opening lines, that the poem would be organized as a formal argument. The first words of each paragraph clearly show the outlines: (1) "Had we..." (If we had no limits of time or space); (2) "But..." (But we do have such limits); (3) "Now, therefore...." The poem is cast as a long, detailed hypothetical syllogism; it uses the form of a standard argument, with vivid examples and carefully contrived rhetoric, to suggest the urgency of enjoying the moment. It is a specious argument, of course, but real people have fallen for worse ones. But this isn't "real life"; the story doesn't even end. As in most other poems (and unlike most drama and fiction), the "plot" and its resolution have little to do with the final effect. Part of the point here is to notice the flaw in the argument. A good logician could show you that the speaker commits the fallacy of the "denied antecedent," that is, he proves what cannot happen but fails to prove what can. Seduction seldom, of course, gets worked out in purely logical terms, and so in one sense the logic of the argument doesn't matter—any more than whether the speaker finally seduces the girl. But in another sense it matters a great deal and contributes to our complex experience of the poem. For if we spot the illogic and find it amusing (since the argument is obviously an effective one, logical or not), we not only feel the accuracy of the poem's observation about seduction but we experience something important about the way words work. Often their effect is more far-reaching than what they say on a literal level, just as this poem reaches much further than any literal statement of its "message" or "meaning." Poetry often exploits the fact that words work in such mysterious ways; in fact, most poems, in one way or another, are concerned with the fact that words may be used suggestively to open out on horizons beyond logical and syntactical categories.
Reading a poem about seduction is hardly the same thing as getting seduced, and only a very peculiar poet or reader would expect it to be, though some of the censorship controversies over the teaching of poems like this may sometimes imply that life and art are the same thing. Anyone who thinks they are is bound to be disappointed by a poem about seduction, or about anything else. One does not go to a poem instead of being seduced, or as a sublimation, or as a guide. A poem about anything does not intend to be the thing itself, or even to recreate it precisely. Poetry, like other literature, is an ordered imitation of perceived reality expressed in words. By definition, by intention, and by practice, poetry modifies life to its own artistic ends, "ordering"—that is, making meaningful—what is only a version in any case. What poetry offers us is not life itself, naked and available, but a perspective (perceived reality) on some recognizable situations or ideas; not Truth with a capital T, but interpretations and stances; not passion itself, but words that evoke associations and memories and feelings. A poem can provide an angle of vision which in "real life" is often blurred through our closeness to experience. And just as the poet fictionalizes—whether he begins with a real event or not—we as readers end with his version, which exists in tension with other things we know, about words, about poetry, about argument, about seduction, about everything. That tension tests not the "truth" of the poet's vision but the effects produced by the poem; the more we know, the richer these effects are likely to be.
Anyone with developed sensitivities and a modest amount of knowledge of the suggestiveness of words can find the crucial words that express and evoke the sensual appeal. The devices of contrast (the flowing Ganges flanked by rubies vs. vast deserts; the spacious wandering vs. the confinement of a marble vault; eternal adoration vs. those traditional symbols of mortality, ashes and dust) may be readily seen by anyone willing to look at the poem carefully. In short, much of the poem is readily available to almost any reader who looks carefully; much of its power is right there on the page, and a reader need make only a minimal effort to experience it.
But a number of things in the poem require special skill or knowledge. The poem's parody of a hypothetical syllogism is only available to those who can recognize a hypothetical syllogism and see the distortion in this one. Of course, not recognizing the syllogism is not too serious, as long as the reader "senses" the falsity of the argument and finds the incongruity in its effectiveness; he simply misses a joke which is part of the poem's complexity. But some other matters in the poem are more crucial, for lack of knowledge about them would not only drain the poem of some of its richness but might even force a misunderstanding of what the poem says on its most literal level.
Look, for instance, at the following words: "coy" (title) and "coyness" (line 2); "mistress" (title); "complain" (line 7); "vegetable" (line 11); "adore" (line 15). All of these words are common enough, but each offers a problem in interpretation because of changes in meaning. The poem was written more than three hundred years ago, in the mid-17th century, and many words used in a specific way then have changed over the years. Words are, in a sense, alive and ever-changing; change is a part of the excitement of language as well as a potential frustration, and if we construe each of these words exactly as it is construed now we will be badly misled. The most obvious change in meaning is in the word "mistress," for to us it implies a specific sexual relationship, one that would make the elaborate seduction plea here seem a little late. The most common 17th-century meaning of "mistress" was simply "a woman who has command over a man's heart; a woman who is loved and courted by a man; a sweetheart, lady-love." This definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, a valuable reference guide that lists historical as well as modern meanings, with detailed examples of usages. The OED can also show us that the new meaning of "mistress" was coming into use when this poem was written, and perhaps the meanings are played off against each other, as a kind of false lead; such false leads are common in poetry, for poets often like to toy with our expectations and surprise us.
"Coy" and "coyness" offer a similar problem; in modern usage they usually suggest playful teasing, affectation, coquettishness. But originally they suggested shyness, modesty, reluctance, reserve, not simply the affectation of those things. Of course, we find out very little about the girl herself in this poem (except what we can infer from the things the speaker says to her and the way he says them), but we are not led to think of her as sly and affected in her hesitancy to receive her lover's advances.
"Complain" and "adore" are more technical. The former indicates a lover going through the ritual of composing a "complaint"—a poem which bewails his misery because of a lady's disdain. Thus, the speaker here self-deprecatingly (but comically) imagines himself (in the unreal, timeless world of the first verse paragraph) as a pining swain, while his love is luxuriating half-across the earth, oblivious to his pain. Obviously, the speaker wants no part of such sado-masochistic romantic nonsense; he prefers sexual pleasure to poetic posing. "Adore" technically means to worship as a deity; there is a certain irony in regarding the girl's body as an object of religious worship, but this speaker carries through his version of the girl's fantasy, modestly refusing to name those parts he wishes to devote thirty thousand years to, and regarding her "heart" (usually synonymous with soul in the Renaissance) as the ultimate conquest for the last age.
The term "vegetable" is even more complex, for it depends on a whole set of physiological/psychological doctrines in the Renaissance. According to those doctrines, the human soul was made up of three souls which corresponded to the different levels of living matter. The Vegetable Soul man possessed in common with plants and animals; the Sensible Soul he possessed in common with animals; the Rational Soul was possessed by man alone. The Vegetable Soul was the lowest and had only the powers of reproduction, nourishment, and growth. The sense, the passions, and the imagination were under the power of the Sensible Soul. A "vegetable love" would be without feeling or passion, appropriate to the lowest forms of life. The speaker thus reduces the notion of timeless, romantic nonphysical love to what he considers its proper level—a subhuman, absurd one. He pictures love without physical involvement not as a higher spiritual attraction but rather as a lower, nonsentient one.
Several other parts of the poem similarly require historical knowledge. Lines 33-36 depend upon Renaissance love psychology which considered physiological reactions (the rosy skin, perspiration) to be stimulated by the release of "animal spirits" in the blood. This release happened when the emotions were heightened by sight of the beloved; phantasms from the eye descended to the soul and released the animal spirits. The soul was thus "present" in the physiological response (the animal spirits), and the speaker pictures it here as involved in the very moment of desire, trying to unite—through the body—with the soul of the beloved. This love psychology may seem somewhat naive, but it is a humbling experience to try to explain our modern notions of how eyes and emotions relate to bodily processes.
The final two lines of the poem depend heavily upon specific knowledge. First there is an allusion to Greek mythology—an allusion which actually began several lines before the end with the reference to Time's slow-chapped (i.e., slow-jawed) power. According to the myth, Chronos (Time) ate all his children except Zeus (who had been hidden by Rhea), and Zeus afterward seized Chronos' power as chief of the gods. Zeus later made the sun stand still to lengthen his love night with Alcmene. We cannot, the speaker says, make time stand still as Zeus did, but we can speed it up. His argument assumes the 17th-century belief that each sex act made a person's life one day shorter. The speaker keeps insisting that the coming of death—time's end—is easier to cope with if you have something interesting to do while you wait.
Up to now we have not even mentioned the man who wrote the poem, Andrew Marvell. Whether Marvell ever had such a coy friend as this poem implies is not very important to us (though it may have been very important to him). For us, the relevant point is the fiction of the poem—regardless of whether that fiction is based on actual fact. But some facts about authorship may be very useful to us as readers of the poem, as long as we use them to help us with the poem and do not simply engage in biographical speculation. In many cases, knowledge about the author is likely to help us recognize the poet's distinctive strategies, and reading other poems by him often reveals his attitudes or devices so that we can read any one poem with more clarity, security, and depth; the index can guide you to other poems by Marvell.
A reader may experience a poem in a satisfactory way without all of the special knowledge I have been describing, but additional knowledge and developed skill can heighten the experience of almost any poem. Poems do not "hide" their meaning, and good poets usually communicate rather quickly in some basic way. Rereadings, reconsiderations, and the application of additional knowledge allow us to hear resonances built into the poem, qualities that make it enjoyable to experience again and again. We have really only begun to look closely at this particular poem, and if you were to continue to reread it carefully, you would very likely discover richnesses which this brief discussion has not even suggested. The route to meaning is often clear on first reading a poem, but the full possibilities of experience may require more time, energy, and knowledge of the right questions to ask.
Your assignment for Literature class today, boys and girls, is to write a paper comparing and contrasting Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century To His Coy Mistress with Billy Joel’s 20th-century Only the Good Die Young. I’m reminded of a French saying that seems quite apropos. I can’t quote it in French, but the English translation is something like “The more things change, the more they stay the same....”
Only the Good Die Young
Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait
You mighta heard I run with a dangerous crowd
You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation
You said your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation