Advanced Technological institute
Higher National Diploma in English
Subject: Introduction to Literature 1st Year 1st Semester
TO HIS COY MISTRESS by Andrew Marwell, Summary and Analysis
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 winged 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 hue
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-chapt 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.
Andrew Marvell an English metaphysical poet, Parliamentarian, and the son of a Church of
England clergyman (also named Andrew Marvell). As a metaphysical poet, he is associated
with John Donne and George Herbert. He was a colleague and friend of John Milton.
Marvell was born in Winestead in-Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire, near the city of
Kingston upon Hull. The family moved to Hull when his father was appointed Lecturer at Holy
Trinity Church there, and Marvell was educated at Hull Grammar School. A secondary school
in the city is now named after him.
His most famous poems include To His Coy Mistress, The Garden, An Horatian Ode upon
Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, The Mower’s Song and the country house poem Upon
“To His Coy Mistress” takes the form of a dramatic monologue, which pretty much means what
it sounds like. The speaker of the poem does all the talking, which makes this a monologue, a
speech by a single character. But, because he isn’t just talking to himself, but to another
fictional character, the mistress, it’s “dramatic” hence the term “dramatic monologue.”
Although the reader might identify with the speaker in a dramatic monologue, or even with the
silent character addressed, there is always the sense that the reader eavesdrops on an intimate
conversation. This sense is heightened in “To His Coy Mistress,” because the speaker doesn’t
give us any personal or biographical information about himself or the mistress to create
separation between the characters and the readers.
Our speaker is anonymous. He could be any man, anywhere. The man does not reveal any
physical or biographical details about himself, and he speaks to a woman, who also remains
nameless. He’s an intense guy. He speaks very beautifully, rhyming everything so that we are
barely aware of it and using the perfect word every time.
Andrew Marvell’s famous lyric To His Coy Mistress is a metaphysical poem. Metaphysical
poems are brief, intense meditations employing wit, irony and elaborate “conceits” or
comparisons. Underlying the formal structures of rhyme, meter, and stanza is the poem’s logic
based argument. In To His Coy Mistress the explicit argument (the speaker’s request that the
coy lady yield to his passion) is a whimsical statement bristling with humorous hyperbole but
leading to a deadly serious argument about the shortness of life and the quick passage of sexual
pleasure.The adjective “coy” at the time of writing had none of its modern suggestions of
playful teasing or coquetry. In Marvell’s day the word was synonym for reluctant, modest, even
The word ‘mistress’ was used to indicate a loved – usage of the word has changed. He is trying
to seduce his mistress in the poem and uses many different methods to achieve this aim. The
fact that the English Civil War was taking place may have influenced the topic of Marvell’s
poem – urgency due to the fact that he didn’t know how much time they would have together
– especially as such a strong supporter of Cromwell. The main focus of the poem is Marvell
telling his mistress that they have to make the most of their time together – he obviously wants
consummate their relationship, whilst she is much more reticent about this development. He
acknowledges at the start of the poem that in another time or place there would be more time
to take the relationship slowly: “Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were
no crime” This seems to suggest that there is a reason for his haste in wanting to move the
relationship on. Perhaps he is fearful of his position as a parliamentarian. The term ‘coy’ does
not simply mean shy.
It intimates that there is an element of deliberateness to her show of being
shy- almost that she isn’t really but is pretending to be because that is what society would
expect of her. Her ‘coyness’, then, could be interpreted as flirtatious and deliberately
provocative. Perhaps because of the nature of the time in which he lived, Marvell is very
conscious of the limited likes that people had – he is urging his mistress to enjoy herself whilst
she has time and is still young. He uses the spectre of death very persuasively to try to get his
mistress to have a more physical relationship with him. The three stanzas of the poem deal
with the different stages of his campaign to persuade her.
The first stanza deals with what they
would be able to do if they had enough time. The second stanza focuses on the fact that they
do not have enough time. The final stanza deals with what he thinks they should do. In this
way, the poem is constructed like a logical argument and is easy for the reader to follow.
Despite the serious subject matter the tone of the poem remains good natured and light hearted.
The construction of the poem using rhyming couplets reinforces the lighter tone of the poem.
Marvell uses some quite unusual contrasts of imagery in the poem. He imagines that his
mistress will walk by the side of the ‘ganges’ and imagines all the exotic and romantic
connotations that this conjures up. He, on the other hand, will be by the side of the Humber a
much more down to earth image. (Marvell lived near Hull, which is situated on the River
A further example of his unusual imagery is demonstrated in: “My Vegetable should grow”
Again, a very down to earth and un-exotic choice of imagery. Marvell seems to be suggesting
that the physical side of their relationship should be ordinary and natural. He seems to find the
romantic side of their relationship exotic and the physical side part of every-day life. Marvell
uses hyperbole in his description of time and the urgency of their predicament. Time is
personified in such a way as to make it feel oppressive and threatening to his mistress: “Time’s
winged chariot hurrying near”. He implies that old age will swiftly be upon them and then it
will be too late for them to indulge their physical passion. This is, of course, an exaggeration
but nonetheless it forms part of a very persuasive argument from Marvell.
Marvell indulges in some quite sinister imagery in the second stanza of the poem, when he informs his mistress
of what will happen to her precious virginity once she is dead. He imagines her in a cold and
lonely ‘marble vault’ – somewhere away from his warm embrace and reminds her that her
virtue will be of no use to her when she is dead. The vivid image of the worms eating away at
her flesh reminds the woman that she should enjoy herself whilst she has the chance. In the
final stanza of the poem, Marvell again tries to persuade her with slightly less alarming
He draws on nature to provide images of their youthfulness and sexual prowess
together: “Like amorous birds of prey”. This image clearly draws on ideas of physical strength
and power, and the fact that their passions are well matched. It is an image of life and vitality
that provides a welcome contrast to the old age and death described in the previous two stanzas.
In the poem overall, Marvell uses many of the accepted features of persuasive writing. He gives
his mistress a compelling argument as to why she should take their relationship further.
During the first stanza, the speaker tells the mistress that If they had more time and space, her
“coyness” wouldn’t be a “crime.” He extends this discussion by describing how much he would
compliment her and admire her, if only there was time. He would focus on “each part” of her
body until he got to the heart (and “heart,” here, is both a metaphor for sex, and a metaphor for
In the 1650s, the British Empire has its teeth firmly sunk into the land of India. Andrew Marvell
was active politician, and the poem briefly alludes to British imperialism in the first stanza.
Line 5: The “Indian Ganges” and “rubies,” when taken together in this context, can be symbols
of imperialism, especially to us, today. When we consider that he generally insults the mistress
in this section, the colonialists, by way of rubies and India, become a metaphor for the mistress.
She steals rubies from the Indian people. She steals sex from the speaker, by not having it with
him. If she doesn’t stop abusing her power, she will leave him in
Line 12: it’s the word “empire” that interests us here. Building an empire is not easy, and it
takes time (though not as long as growing vegetables, apparently). Some would say the same
of relationships. Thus, colonialism also becomes a metaphor for relationships. The speaker
accuses the mistress of thinking that sex and relationships are something big and serious, like
ruling the world (the goal of building an empire), when, in fact or so he says later on such
things are as common for people as for birds. He accuses her of hyperbole, which is ironic,
considering all of his hyperbole throughout the poem.
In the second stanza he says, “BUT,” we don’t have the time, we are about to die! He tells her
that life is short, but death is forever. In a shocking moment, he warns her that, when she’s in
the coffin, worms will try to take her “virginity” if she doesn’t have sex with him before they
die. If she refuses to have sex with him, there will be repercussions for him, too. All his sexual
desire will burn up, “ashes” for all time.
In the third stanza he says, “NOW,” I’ve told you what will happen when you die, so let’s have
sex while we’re still young. Hey, look at those “birds of prey” mating. That’s how we should
do it but, before that, let’s have us a little wine and time Then, he wants to play a game the turn
ourselves into a “ball” game. (Hmmm.) He suggests, furthermore, that they release all their
pent up frustrations into the sex act, and, in this way, be free
In the final couplet, he calms down a little. He says that having sex can’t make the “sun” stop
moving. In Marvell’s time, the movement of the sun around the earth (we now believe the earth
rotates around the sun) is thought to create time. Anyway, he says, we can’t make time stop,
but we can change places with it. Whenever we have sex, we pursue time, instead of time
pursuing us. This fellow has some confusing ideas about sex and time. Come to think of it, we
probably do, too. “To His Coy Mistress” offers us a chance to explore some of those confusing
Other technical felicities include Marvell’s creation of sounds to fit the sense of the poem. The
alliteration of “long love’s day” combines with the use of long vowels and diphthongs to create
the feeling of slow time in the first section of the poem, despite its quick succession of images.
The repeated, aspirated h sounds and the ch sound in “chariot” almost make the reader feel the
rushing of wind that accompanies the beating of wings. In the last section of the poem, the
combination of liquid l’s and the long back of the mouth vowels suggests the action of rolling
something up: “Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball.
” The sudden shift to frontal vowels and the onomatopoeic “tear” provides an abrupt shift as the ball takes
on the characteristics of a cannonball. The effective use of variations in the rhymed iambic
tetrameter rhythm also adds to the experience of meaning by correlating sound with sense. Note
the use of spondees in “Love you ten years,” “last age,” “roll all,” “rough strife,” and “Stand
still.” Another rhythmic effect that underscores the meaning of the words is the use of an
occasional accented first syllable coming after an enjambment ending in a long vowel that
crescendos into the accent. Especially effective are “I would/ Love you” “should grow/ Vaster”
(ll 11-12), “I always hear/ Time’s” (ll 21-22), and “before us lie/ Deserts” (ll 23-24).
The exotic, distant, flowing Ganges is contrasted with the down-to-earth, hometown, tidal
Humber. The rich and majestic ruby, which is to gems what the sun is to the planets and the
king to the rest of society, is contrasted with the lowly, pastoral love complaint. “Vegetable”
love refers to the vegetative, or growing, capacity of the soul of plants or animals, which must
take time to reach normal growth and would need much longer to grow “Vaster than empires.”
The most celebrated image of the poem, “Time’s wingéd chariot,” combines the image of speed
with harassment and gains even more power by being contrasted with the sterility of “Deserts”
and the stark stillness of “vast eternity.” The propriety of the image of devouring worms in a
love poem (as well as the possible allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in “quaint
honor”) has been questioned, but the worms certainly work well in the creation of a sense of
urgency in the poem. So also does the contrast in the images of eating: the eager appetite of the
“amorous birds of prey” pitted against the slow, trapped, defeated helplessness of being
devoured, slow bite by slow bite, in the lazy-but-powerful jaws of time.
There is a declaration of unity and even mutuality, should the hoped-for culmination of his
pleading be reached, in the image of their sweetness and their strength (not her sweetness and
his strength) being rolled up tightly into one ball. The image increases in vitality and strength
(hinting at a more fitting end to virginity than a congregation of politic worms) as this ball tears
through the gates of life. There is power in the oxymoronic mixing of toughness, strife, and
iron with pleasures and the fertility of the gates of life. The final image of the sun standing still
could possibly be an allusion to Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still so he could finish
the day’s slaughter in battle but is more likely an allusion to Zeus performing the same feat to
extend by twenty-four hours his night with the lovely Alcmene in the pleasant task of
engendering Hercules. Perhaps this final couplet, which some editors separate from the last
section of the poem, merely suggests, “Time flies when you’re having