Andrew Marvell the “son of a Church of England clergyman, […] grew up in Yorkshire, attended Trinity College, Cambridge” and eventually “took his degree in 1639.”(Abrams 678) “In 1641 […] his father drowned in the Tide of Humber—the estuary at Hull, made famous by ‘To His Coy Mistress’”(“Andrew Marvell.”). “To His Coy Mistress” presents as an argument, seeking to persuade a lover to give in to his demands before death steals this opportunity. Stuffed with themes of mortality, eternity, Judgement Day, and lust, the poem can be read as a religious poem that censures overindulgence in Eros through its usage of contrasting imagery, allusion, and sarcasm. It strives to reawaken the flickering flames of spirituality beset by an oncoming hurricane of secularism.
Language, particularly poetic language, is notable for its usage of metaphor. Often times the literal meaning of words is not meant, and only context clues allow one to pick up on the speaker’s true intent. Ostensibly a seduction poem, Marvell opens with the theme of timelessness couched in wishful thinking: “Had we but worlds enough and time,/ This coyness, lady, were no crime”(1-2) and contrasts it with imagery out of sync with the literal meaning.
This contrasting imagery takes place throughout the poem with jovial imagery preceded by, or bracketed between, far more serious imagery. Here, he imagines an idyllic scene, ‘romantic’ and upbeat, of two lovers on opposite rivers. Marvell writes, “Thou by the Indian Gages’ side/ Shouldest rubies find; I by the tide/ Of Humber would complain”(5-7). Marvel’s father drowned in the estuary fed by Humber, and while that is not Humber itself, it is close enough to awaken traumatic memories as anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can attest. Despite being near to this watery grave, he is not contemplating his own mortality, rather he is wasting what precious time he has writing “poems of plaintive, unavailing love”(Abrams 680).
This foolish action is further juxtaposed by more water imagery in the form of an allusion to the Flood of Nūḥ (Noah), peace be upon him, a flood notable for drowning people who did not listen. The Qur’ān describes the efforts of Nūḥ, peace be upon him, and the response he received in the following manner: wa innī kulamā dacawṭuhum li ṭaghfira lahum jacalū aṣābcahum fī ādhānihim was ṭaghshow thiyābahum wa aṣarrū was ṭakbarus ṭikbara [And indeed, every time I invite them so that You would forgive them they place their fingers in their ears, cover themselves with their clothes, and persist and are arrogant](71:7). With the hint of his father’s watery death and religious imagery evoking the destruction of the heedless, another image is brought to mind: Judgement Day. Would one ignoring the signs around them in order to pass valuable time in idle pursuits that have no benefit in this world, nor the hereafter, be able to answer with ease on such a day, or would they be up the river without a paddle?
Compared to, say, the multi-faceted love between a husband and wife who have decided to face the vicissitudes of time together, the ‘love’ which Marvell speaks of is an impure one, rooted firmly in Eros and the pornographic objectification of the female form. Marvel imagines the consuming of thirty thousand five hundred years and “[an] age at least to every part”(17) in describing his lover’s physical form as a just act. After all, he saves one solitary age for what really matters: her heart. This corporeal admiration, is just what she deserves, as Marvell declares, “For, lady, you deserve this state,/ Nor would I love at lower rate.”(19-20)
In the face of such carnal lust, one may wonder what fate would await the lover unlucky enough to be assailed by some physical deformity, or whose outward form was eclipsed by the brilliance of another, more comely, maiden. The ‘love’ depicted by Marvell is in reality only the burning coals of lascivious intent which die just as easily as they are ignited. And if it does not die out, one of them will die, a point Marvel wryly brings up directly after the above lines, as he personifies Death as “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”(22).
Once the winged chariot catches them, and it will catch them, the physical beauty being chased and praised will no longer exist. To drive home his point, Marvell utilizes irony and necrophilic imagery. While the previous lines speak of the adoration of the beloved’s mortal form, there is no mention of the physical consumption that would be the natural outcome of the aforementioned lust. When that imagery is brought forth, it is in the most disgusting manner possible, as though he were deliberately trying to play some psychological trick on the reader in the vein of Pavlov’s dog, only it’s not saliva he wishes to exit our mouths. Marvell writes, “then worms shall try/ That long-preserved virginity,/ And your quaint honor turn to dust”(27-29) Even the long ages spent praising the beloved will not last. A poet rightly noted:
And if you think you may live longer yet
At least as a name alive on the lips of men,
When your last day takes even this from you,
There’s still to come
That second death.(Henderson)
Marvell seems to be encouraging his beloved to choose mortal flesh, sin, and unfathomable pain should one decide not to repent, over the eternal interests of their own soul. After all, there is no talk here of weddings and marriage. Therefore, the only thing he could be seeking is an extramarital relationship sunk fathoms deep in an ocean of sin. Would a sane individual choose to live for the moment, screaming, “YOLO!” and ignore what Marvell describes as “Deserts of vast eternity”(24)? Does that seem like a wise choice? Doesn’t the Qur’ān censure humanity when it states: bal ṭu’cthirūnal ḥayāṭad dunyā wal ākhiraṭu khairun wa abqā [Nay, you prefer the life of the world, but the hereafter is better and more lasting](87:16-17)?
The last two lines appear to sum up the poem, conveying a message especially relevant in this day when narcissism and secularism seem to hold sway over vast swathes of the population. Marvel writes, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun,/ Stand still, yet we will make him run”(45-46). The first line may be a reference to Yūshac ibn Nūn (Joshua), peace be upon him, and a miracle given to him.(Abrams 680) However, Marvell does not appear to be suggesting the mundane utilization of time to “tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life”(43-44)? It’s an odd message given the fact that miracles are granted to prophets in order to confirm their truthfulness. That is, miracles are shown by prophets to prove that they are authentic couriers conveying a message from the Creator, and the core of this message is the same from one prophet to the next: obey the One who created you and eternal bliss is yours. The first line brings in this idea of obedience and eternity that makes it difficult to take the subsequent idea at face value. Yes, the present moment should be utilized before death or misfortune befalls one, but in a manner that will bring, to borrow an economic term, maximum profit. It is rightly said, “Carpe diem quam minimum credual postero”(“Q. Horatius Flaccus (Horace), Odes John Conington, Ed.”).
“Andrew Marvell.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Henderson, Jeffery. “BOETHIUS, The Consolation of Philosophy | Loeb Classical Library.” Loeb Classical Library. Harvard Press. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 679-680. Print.
“Q. Horatius Flaccus (Horace), Odes John Conington, Ed.” Q. Horatius Flaccus (Horace), Odes, Book 1, Poem 11. Ed. John Conington. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Quran. Karachi, Pakistan. N.P. 1994. Print.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.