Saturday, May 13, 2006

To his coy mistress

Andrew Marvell


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.
But at my back I always hear
Time's wing'ed 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 preserved 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 glue
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 amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the iron grates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Few poems in the English language are as influential [1] or as well-beloved as this one. And justly so. It's a particularly deceptive poem, one that opens on comic, mocking note and can be read, in its entirety, as a rather frustrated gentleman's desperate and hyperbolic attempt to get his lady into bed [2]. And yet somewhere in the middle of the poem, the silliness gives way to a darker sensibility and the poem gets down to business (a change in tone marvellously consonant with the change in meaning, vividly highlighting the two different arguments). What follows is arguably the most eloquent statement of the dictum 'carpe diem' ever put down in rhyme.

What woman, one wonders, could resist?

For more commentary, see Minstrels

[1] Eliot devotees will notice the "At my back I always hear / Time's Wing'ed Chariot hurrying near" that Eliot parodies in the Waste Land.

[2] Some things, apparently, do not change

P.S. The text for this version comes from the Complete Poems published by Penguin Classics and edited by Elizabeth Story Donno. There are several discrepancies between this and other texts - most notably the use of glue rather than hue / hew in line 33. Donno argues that glue is what appears in the Folio, and is therefore the correct reading.


Anonymous hatshepsut said...

'to his coy mistress' was one of the earliest poems i remember from my former life as an english literature major. it coincided with my going through a brief and ill-conceived gothic horror phase and i remember thinking that marvell was eerily reminiscent of poppy z brite and 'his mouth will taste of wormwood' - seductive but creepy as hell. thanks for running it.

have to confess that this isn't my favorite 'carpe diem' poem. the cavalier poets have produced some great poetic attempts at seduction and they predate marvell. i also really like donne's 'the flea'.

5/14/2006 04:44:00 PM  

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