The Non-Discriminatory Nature of Time
in Andrew Marvell s
To His Coy Mistress
Time passes. Its journey is oblivious to power, weakness, beauty, or mercy. The nature of time itself lies in its unrelenting progression through life, until we are removed from it s favor and then wither and die. The purpose of most carpe diem poetry is to draw a character s attention (usually the female) to the pressing nature of time s progress, as well as illustrating the bountiful rewards of seizing the moment and giving into the momentary passions of life. Andrew Marvell s poem To His Coy Mistress is a classic example of carpe diem poetry, exemplifying the foreboding nature of time. It s distinction from similar works, however, lies in its inherent ability to express the ominous nature of time s advancement in terms of both the male and female s perspectives. Rather than lament about missed opportunities, To His Coy Mistress actually serves to force one to consider how we compartmentalize time into stages of life, and thus commit ourselves to its mercy without allowing ourselves to relish its immediate rewards. Marvell s sense of time affects both his characters in unique ways, and therefore unites their plight as a human cause rather than a gender based issue. Andrew Marvell expresses this point by structuring his poem into three components that propose the issues of time s existence, its limited availability, and finally a solution of sorts.
The first section of To His Coy Mistress serves the task of identifying that time is a limited commodity, and thus can not be wasted. Immediately the speaker states openly that Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime (1-2). The implication here, if taken at face value, suggests that the mistress coyness is a crime only because of the lack of time available. The speaker continues with We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love s day (3-4). The tone of such a verse is overtly suspicious, automatically suggestive of the insidious nature of a man hungry to feed his lust. However, another possibility lies in the direct message Marvell puts forth in his verse. The spoken comments themselves suggest that We would sit down, and think and pass our long love s day (3,4). The impression given is one of joint merriment in love. The speaker associates the passion of his coy mistress with his own, creating a sense of understanding and common ground. The speaker then moves to a detailed description of how he, if given the opportunity, would spend increasing amounts of time to appreciate the details of her being. He emphasizes My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires, and more slow (11), expressing how he would choose to take his time and immerse himself in loving his mistress. The speaker makes it clear that he would spend more and more time in love as time passes specifically dictating which parts he would focus on. Finally the speaker relates For, lady, you deserve this state, Nor would I love at lower rate. (20), which elicits a sense of honorable intention. Regardless of whether the reader trusts the speaker or not, attention is definitely drawn towards the abstract sense of time. The overall message of the first part of the poem seems to implore that if time was of no consequence, it would be perfectly fine to postpone physical intimacy, and prolong the pleasures of courtship.
The second part of To His Coy Mistress seeks to impart a sense of urgency in the speaker. Immediately the poem reads But at my back I always hear Time s wing d chariot hurrying near (21-22), implying a sense of time s imposing presence in the speaker s sense. He continues with And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity (23-24). Such commentary seems permeated with a common sense of weighted urgency, indicating that time s will equally affects both partners. He begins to state Thy beauty shall no more be found, Nor in thy marble vault shall sound My echoing song (25-27). Rather than attempting to frighten his mistress, the mood created by such lines directs the focus toward the impartial nature of death, and the sorrowful concept of love lost. The stanza is summed up by relating that The grave s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace. The tone here clearly elevates the nature of time s passing into a common issue, uniting the lovers against a mutual enemy. The fear that the speaker imparts implies mortality, rather than the loss of mere physical conquest. The sad outcome of such a loss speaks more to a sense of embracing life, rather than to conform to social rules and regulations. These rules, in accordance with the author s tone, deny humanity the euphoric sense of immediate pleasure, and simple happiness. Marvell uses such ideology to suggest a unique sense of carpe diem philosophy. The conception is a more pointed outlook at our society, and at how we might harbor regrets about our personal conformity in our latter years. Such regret is not unsubstantiated, for only a few are really able to appreciate the nuances and simplistic happiness offered by life in the immediate sense. Only upon our deathbeds do we as a society tend to sincerely question our success and our failure at so great an adventure.
In keeping with such notions, the poem resumes Now, therefore, while the youthful hue Sits on thy skin . And while thy willing soul transpires, imparting a definite sense of urgency and seizing the moment. The purpose of this last stanza clearly proposes the alternative to letting life pass by unchallenged. Instead, the speaker suggests 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. Superficially, this statement could be considered to simply imply that the lovers should discard the inhibitions and consummate their love without further delay. In the context of the poem, however, these lines imply the desire to take advantage of life and challenge time s passing by rushing and packing any available time with favorable experiences and passionate memories. In essence, these two extrapolated connotations do not differ in their intended messages. The former suggests the specific actions that the latter commends to be ideal. Marvell s use of language, diction, and tone successfully weaves the immediate goals of carpe diem philosophy with the extended ideologies that such poetry implies.