Poetry Forum > 'To His Coy Mistress' by Andrew Marvell

As promised, here is the first in an occasional series of notes and observations on some of the poems in the Andrew Marvell collection – and where better to begin than with the most famous poem of the lot?

What follows cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a full or even a partial discussion of the poem: whole books have been written about that. All I’m jotting down here is a very small handful of interesting pointers. For more, I recommend a look at the reading list on the Andrew Marvell page of this website.

If there are any questions you’d like to ask, please don’t hesitate to post them here and I’ll do my best to reply.

To His Coy Mistress
by 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 wingèd 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 glew
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-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 gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Like many of Marvell’s poems, the date of its composition is unknown. It wasn’t published in his lifetime, first appearing in the posthumous collection ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ in 1681, three years after his death. Nigel Smith, editor of the Longman edition of Marvell’s poems, proposes a date of late 1640s to early 1650s.

Line 5: in the 17th-century imagination, the river Ganges was associated with luxury, beauty and riches.

Line 7: the Humber was a river which held some personal significance for Marvell: it flows into the North Sea at his home town of Hull, and in 1641, when Marvell was 20, his father drowned in the river.

Line 8: 'ten years before the flood': although Bible scholars had calculated dates for Noah’s flood and most of the other key events in the Old Testament, the flood was nonetheless popularly regarded as a proverbial symbol of the incalculably distant past. So Marvell is saying that, had he but world enough and time, he would begin loving his mistress ten years before something already regarded as proverbially ancient.

Line 10: 'Till the conversion of the Jews': in our day and age there is an understandable instinct to back away warily from this sort of line, and of course attitudes were much different in the 17th century, but there is no reason to suppose that Marvell is being anti-Semitic in any meaningful sense. The conversion of the Jews to Christianity was one of the events popularly supposed to herald the second coming of Christ – so, in lines 7-10, Marvell is simply using both ends of a familiar religious time-frame in order to say ‘I would love you from the beginning of time, and you could refuse until doomsday’ – albeit in a far wittier and more elegant fashion than that. Nigel Smith also draws attention to the millenarian theories which were gaining popularity in the mid-17th century. The Jews had been expelled from England 400 years earlier by Edward I, and their return after the Restoration was, at least in part, the result of negotiations by Puritan pressure groups who genuinely hoped that the return of the Jews would help to bring about the Millennium. Meanwhile, in an apocalyptic 1653 tract called ‘Bethshemesh Clouded’, a notorious Presbyterian controversialist called Zachary Crofton declared that, as calculations demonstrated that the Biblical flood took place in 1656 BC, it therefore followed that ‘fire must come on this world’ in 1656 AD. As far as Londoners were concerned he would prove to be only ten years out, but that’s another story…

Line 11: ‘vegetable love’: in other words, a love which grows slowly and steadily like a plant – but there’s also a bawdy implication. Think of time-lapse photography of a cucumber growing if it helps.

Line 12: 'Vaster than empires, and more slow': one of Marvell’s countless puns. 'Vaster’ might also imply ‘faster’, hence providing a paradoxical counterpoint to ‘more slow’. This sort of wordplay is utterly characteristic of Marvell.

Lines 21-22: 'But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near': this famous couplet has been much admired by other poets. Tennyson said of it: ‘That strikes me as sublime, I can hardly tell why.’ T. S. Eliot famously played on the couplet in his great 1922 poem ‘The Waste Land’. The Bodleian Library houses a variant manuscript which gives the couplet’s first line as ‘But hark, behind methinks I hear’. Nobody thinks this is an improvement!

Lines 29-30: ‘dust… ashes’: an echo, of course, of the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…’

Line 29: ‘quaint’. If you are easily offended, look away now. ‘Quaint’ means ‘proud’ and ‘prim’, but there’s also an obvious pun on the Middle English word ‘queynte’, which remained in common usage until the mid-19th century. Let’s just say that nowadays the same word has become a little less respectable, and that we spell it with four letters, beginning with ‘c’.

Line 33: ‘youthful glew’: until the last few decades, many editions of Marvell gave this as ‘youthful hue’, but today the consensus among most academics is that ‘glew’, which appears in two of the extant manuscripts, is a better fit. It doesn’t mean ‘glue’; it means both ‘perspiration’ and ‘glow’, which seem to chime far more consonantly with the themes of the poem and with its vivid, earthy language.

Line 44: ‘thorough’ is a common 17th-century alternative spelling of ‘through’, offering poets a handy extra syllable when required; it turns up again in Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ and ‘Upon Appleton House’.

Line 44: ‘iron gates’: some editors have preferred ‘iron grates’, which appears in some manuscripts, but academics have suggested not only that ‘iron gates’ seems to make rather more sense, but also, as Robert Wilcher of Birmingham University has pointed out, that it is apposite as a play on the traditional phrase ‘iron gates of death’.

July 25, 2010 | Registered CommenterNicholas Pegg

Fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing these notes/observations. I found the explanation for the 'Til the conversion of the Jews' line to be especially interesting, for although I'd already understood Marvell's meaning for Lines 8 and 10, I didn't know about the millenarian theories and the historical stuff you mentioned.

Your discussion on the meaning of the word "quaint" in the podcast had been most amusing and it's equally entertaining to see it written down in this post. :-) I'm not sure if I'm remembering this right but I think I may have also read other people's comments about the word "coy" having a different connotation back then (i.e., reluctant or even disdainful) from its meaning nowadays (i.e., playing hard to get)...? Or maybe I'm recalling something else...

About "vegetable love", apart from taking it to mean a love that grows slowly, I assumed that Marvell was contrasting vegetative/vegetable with reproductive/fruit which is what he's proposing love should be like... but maybe I'm just over-analyzing. :P

Speaking of analyzing the poem, is the interpretation that most academics/critics agree on today the one about the shortness of time / "carpe diem" theme? I ask because when I was reading up on Marvell online, I came across one analysis of this particular poem saying that it's basically a warning to women of Marvell's time who desire to be flattered against men's readiness to say anything in order to bed them. I can see why some people may think that, but I wonder if it's really accepted by literary experts as a correct alternative interpretation or perhaps a secondary objective of Marvell's when he wrote the poem.

Again, many thanks for taking the time to post about the poems included in the absolutely brilliant Andrew Marvell release. To someone like me who loves this poetry collection to bits and has been enjoying it for the past week, these notes are most appreciated. Ooooh, and I can't wait for your post about 'The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun" as well as my other favourites from the selection. ;-)

July 25, 2010 | Registered CommenterAnthea

Many, many thanks for the notes (and the informative podcast); both much appreciated.

Anthea, Coy could mean "unresponsive, distant, standoffish, disdainful" (see the Glossary section of shakespeareswords.com).

July 25, 2010 | Registered CommenterAnthony Phillips

My pleasure, Anthea. And Anthony too.

In response to your post, Anthea, a bit more about 'vegetable love' which, as is is the case with so many of Marvell's conceits and images, sets off a multiplicity of echoes. It was a belief of the Epicurean philosophers that plants were capable of loving in the same way that we do. Meanwhile, the Aristotelian system divides the soul into three categories: rational (the highest), sensitive (in the middle) and vegetative (the lowest). The vegetative soul is characterized only by growth. And finally, I note that Nigel Smith cites a couplet from a poem by Herbert of Cherbury, dated circa 1620 (i.e. thirty or forty years before Marvell wrote his poem): 'Pleasure of such a kind, as truly is / A self-renewing vegetable bliss.'

As for the question of the overall theme of the poem - well, there's no reason why the two readings you mention, Anthea, should be mutually exclusive. Like all great literature, the poem doesn't just hang on a single hook. Clearly its bedrock is the familiar 'carpe diem' topos of the Latin love elegy, but Marvell's poem moves beyond that tradition and opens up a world of possibilities, among them the secondary reading you mention (which I confess I don't think I'd come across before). There are countless other sources and generic influences to ponder. For example, as in so many of his poems, Marvell is gently mocking certain poetic and philosophical conventions: the first 20 lines can be seen as a parody of Neoplatonism, and the whole poem might be interpreted as an exercise in hot-blooded impatience with the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet, forever preoccupied as it is with the idea of unattainable love. Some critics have even pointed to evidence that Marvell was being mocked in print for alleged homosexual preferences, and have consequently argued that another layer of interpretation can be added to his most famous poem: that it might be an ostentatious public declaration of heterosexuality designed to impress not only women with its tenderness, but also men with its salacious sauciness.

For Marvell's readers, 'coy' could simply mean 'shy' and 'modest', but it also carried all those other implications you mention above, and was thus both a potent word and a slippery one. It was also very common: Shakespeare uses it frequently, often in the 'disdainful' sense (for example, Petruchio to Kate in 'The Taming of the Shrew': ''Twas told me you were rough and coy and sullen'), and Marvell himself uses it again in 'On a Drop of Dew'. Interestingly, there's a rather feeble ditty by a little-known cavalier poet called Matthew Stevenson, published in about 1645, called 'To My Coy and Captious Mistress'. Nigel Smith describes it as 'incompetent', and I tend to agree with him. I've got a copy of it somewhere - I'll see if I can dig it out!

July 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterNicholas Pegg

Here it is. What can I say? Not quite up to Andrew Marvell's standard, I think you'll agree...

'To My Coy and Captious Mistress'
by Matthew Stevenson

(from 'Occasion's Off-spring', circa 1645)

I'll court my shade no more, but flee
From it, and make it follow me:
Nor shall the lusty cedar bow
To the base bramble, 'tis too low.
I'll kneel no more t'ungrateful thistles,
Nor listen to each bird that whistles:
I have forgot you, and today
I did make ortes of better hay.
I loved thee once, but now my scorn
Shall triumph over thee forlorn:
I'll wrap my front up in disdain,
Nor shalt thou it uncloud again,
No, though one careless smile would save
Thy cast-off carcass from the grave:
Thy tears, and prayers and looking wan
Were but to wash an Indian.
Nay, wert thou fair as thou art not,
Thou shouldst not move my breast one jot:
Nor would I love thee one half hour,
Though both the Indies were thy dower:
Though all the saints should bless thy face,
Thou get'st not henceforth one embrace:
I hate thine eyes, and rather would
A Basilisk should me behold.

July 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterNicholas Pegg

Concerning "glew" the Penguin edition has "glue" in the binding (figurative) sense and says this meaning in the poem is made clear by quoting William Baldwin's "A Treatise of Moral Philosophy": "Life is nothing else but as it were a glue which in man fasteneth the soul and body together".

It doesn't make it clear to me I'm afraid so I prefer to read "glew" to mean "glow".

I was confused about "glew" meaning ‘perspiration’ and ‘glow’. I Couldn't find this definition anywhere but after consulting the OED I noticed that "glew" was an obsolete form of "glee", "glue" and "glow"; hence the confusion- with me at least.

July 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterAnthony Phillips

"Thy tears, and prayers and looking wan / Were but to wash an Indian. ... I hate thine eyes, and rather would / A Basilisk should me behold."

Ugh, definitely nowhere near Marvell's level. :-)

Thanks for your very informative response to my last post, Nick. I'll be checking daily, impatiently, for your notes on the other poems. ;-)

July 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterAnthea

I particularly like "I'll kneel no more t'ungrateful thistles / Nor listen to each bird that whistles". Now there's a couplet to conjure with!

Sorry not to have posted any more notes just yet; I'm currently besieged by deadlines, but I'll tackle another poem just as soon as I get the chance - hopefully some time within the next few days.

August 2, 2010 | Registered CommenterNicholas Pegg

I've just been listening again to a poetry anthology I bought a few months ago. It's called “Poems from the Poets' Corner” (compiled by John Lithgow and where the readers are various actors such as Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Glenn Close, Helen Mirren, Billy Connolly, Robert Sean Leonard and Gary Sinise, to name some). One of the poems is Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', read by John Lithgow himself.

Although the pauses and the stress on words/syllables were fine, the pace was too fast, and he sounded rather gruff and a little too energetic. To give you an idea of what I mean, Nicholas Pegg's reading of this poem is 2 minutes, 37 seconds long (that's including the introductory music) while Lithgow's was 17 seconds shorter (also with the intro which was just as long as the one for the Pegg reading). But it's really the voice, the tone, that threw me... Whereas Pegg made the speaker in the poem sound like he was wooing the "coy" lady (getting her to come around to his way of thinking), Lithgow gave me the mental picture of a man who lunged at a woman and during the course of the poem, was tearing her dress to shreds. :P I had a similar problem with Lithgow's reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 'A Psalm of Life', a favourite of mine from that poet.

Incidentally, the version of Marvell's poem that he read was the one with the word "hue" rather than "glew", and they just used famous compositions at the start of the poems (e.g., the 3rd Movement of Vivaldi's L'autunno for 'To Autumn' by John Keats). Oh, and like in the Textbook Stuff release, he pronounced Marvell as "marvel" rather than "marvelle".

The anthology also includes Christina Rossetti's 'Up-hill', read by Helen Mirren. That one's good: the pacing was all right and the poem's rhythm was established by the delivery for the most part (there were a few places where the pause between the question and the reply seemed too long). However, I prefer Miriam Margolyes's reading because she would change her tone slightly when shifting between the verses that asked something and the verses that answered the question, and I feel that gives more life to that sort of poem.

Anyway, I'm not sharing this to diss this other poetry collection - it's quite nice actually. However, now that I've heard Textbook Stuff's version of the two poems I mentioned, I understand better now why these audios have helped me appreciate classic poetry all the more. ;-) Thanks, Barnaby, for producing this excellent range!

August 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterAnthea