To His Coy Mistress

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,”  but it was far enough back that I earnestly identified with the poem’s narrator and his desires to find or convince a romantic partner.

That poem I read then is not the poem I read today, but even back in my misty youth I probably appreciated the wit of it along with the point of its argument. When I took a quick look at how “To His Coy Mistress”  is currently viewed, I see that appreciation for the poem’s wit and artifice has increased in the past few decades. It may not be possible to determine just how invested Marvell was in convincing the lady in question versus showing off his poetic chops, or even how sincere he was in his variation on the classic “carpe diem” argument that if you don’t go to bed with me, now!,  that you (currently comely love object) clearly  don’t realize that you’ll be a rotting corpse soon.

How romantic that! Here’s a box of candy too—by the way, do you know that such foods high in sugar and fat will likely lead to cardiovascular and other diseases—not to mention tooth decay and gum disease? No? Well, let me tell you….

I’m not sure how often throughout history that real and actionable knickers came flying off at this idea—but poets love it. If love, death, and beauty are the  poetic stuff, any chance to mix all three is impossible to resist.

I normally feel I have to come up with some supposition to perform one of these pieces, and what I decided here was that as a polemic, Marvell’s poetic swain means it. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t going to have some fun talking about it. Even my teenager/reader could smile at that exaggeration of the delay of traveling to India to look for jewels first,*   but did I appreciate then the auction-like absurdity bidding up the hotness of his sweetie? Do I hear a hundred years? Two-thousand! Do I hear a-three…a-three…a-three—thirty-thousand,  sold!!

Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson-two chaps from Hull

Random blokes from Hull: Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson. Ronson looks like he just saw the cartoon below; Marvell, like he just burped.


But I think he’s serious with the unforgettable and oddly accented “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” And deflowering worms and cremated dusty lust may be over the top, but he’s not beneath crypt-keeper humor in this.

Carp Breathalyzers!

Carpe Diem! I think this is taken from a Dick Guindon cartoon. There are those who think that Dick Guindon was one of the greatest one-panel newspaper cartoonists ever. We call some of them Minnesotans.


As the poem rushes to its conclusion, I think some of the urgency passes beyond the bar of exaggeration for humorous effect. The poem’s last two couplets, which I think sincere, are as strong in my estimation as the more famous and remembered ones earlier in the poem.

For all of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”  “poetry’s greatest hits” status, isn’t it odd that we don’t remember what I think are the poem’s four strongest lines, the ones that the poem ends with? Is it all about the chase and not what happens when we catch?

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Marvell’s poem with the LYL Band:




*It wasn’t until this month as I worked on this that I found out what the poem’s companion to the Indian Ganges trip,  “by the tide of Humber,” was on about. Turns out that the Humber is an estuary/river near Hull in northeastern England. It happens to be where Andrew Marvell was from, as well as (a few centuries later) Mick Ronson, the guitarist/arranger for David Bowie.

3 thoughts on “To His Coy Mistress

  1. More synchronicity! I was just reading John Sutherland’s book “50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know,” and he discusses this poem in the section on the “Double Bind.” Among other things, he says, “If the poem were called ‘To the Virtuous Women I Desperately Want to Screw but Don’t Want to Marry,’ its motive would be clearer, if less poetic. As it is, the lady must be either promiscuous (unladylike), or a dried-up old maid. Double bondage.”

    Also, I took a week-long poetry course at the University of Cape Town summer school a couple of months ago, and we studied Philip Larkin’s poem “The Whitsun Weddings.” To accompany the course, they showed a BBC documentary about Larkin, who comes across as an atrocious person, and his life in Hull, which is described as a grim place but didn’t actually look that bad in the footage.

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  2. When I started to write this post about “To His Coy Mistress” I figured I’d need to deal with the double-standard/The Patriarchy elements, which were part of the poem I remembered from my more youthful encounters with it. And as your Sutherland notes, carpe diem poems usually resort to this ridiculousness.

    I still don’t know enough about Marvell as a person or biography to make sure of my reading of intent–but starting with the gallivanting to the Ganges for rubies riff to the next (what I call the “auction” section) I think he’s aiming for humor. Then I see a turn in the time’s chariot and grave section, which I think is dark humor, still pointing out absurdity. Then that final section “and while thy willing soul transpires” to the poem’s conclusion I take as sincere. If Marvell had chosen to publish only that last section as an entire poem, it’d be a frank mutual desire poem, distinct from the the man-splaining of the typical carpe diem poem, the ones that reduce themselves to “If you had a philosophical lobe in your poor lady-brain you’d realize that you have no choice in this matter.”

    If my reading is valid, then this is a very modern poem, with extraordinary shifts in mood. Those final two couplets!

    “And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life”


    “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

    Why aren’t these the lines we remember from this poem!? There seems an element of mutuality in this final section (missing from most any carpe diem poem I recall off-hand, or the Playboy centerfold/male gaze of some other Cavalier poetry I remember), I find the first genuinely moving, and the second a statement of human defiance. I didn’t remember them from my early encounters with “To His Coy Mistress” either. Is that where The Patriarchy enters and wounds this poem? By steering our reading and remembrance of it as just another carpe diem poem, one with some grand guignol images?

    Of course I may be misreading the poem, and life too. By replying in length to you in this way, I’m giving the very appearance of man-splaining. Honest, I’m still just jumping with the joy of discovering a “new” poem from the canon that I hadn’t read this way before, an experience that is still continuing for me after committing to a performance and the post about it. But after all, I’m writing this in reply to the person who has caused me to see the Dutch Cleanser logo in a different light! Looking forward to new encounters with the past on your blog.


  3. Exploring ideas with an open mind isn’t mansplaining, and reading a great poem like this ONLY as being about patriarchy wouldn’t be very interesting. I hadn’t read this poem in years–and I always get it mixed up with Ben Jonson’s similar “To Celia”–so I enjoyed your late(r)-in-life exploration and your discovery of the final lines, which I also had never focused on.

    Another thing Sutherland says about the poem is that “the ‘authority’ in this situation lies with the male suitor. She cannot answer him with another of the most brilliant poems in the English language. Or, apparently, with the riposte: ‘Marry me, then, if you want it that badly.'” I just reread one of my favorite poems from the 1918 period–“The Young Wife” by 20-year-old Louise Bogan–and, though it isn’t a riposte to an aspiring seducer, it is a rare expression of what the double standard felt like to a woman on the other end of it. It’s in the December 1917 issue of The Other:;view=1up;seq=509.

    I have a new blog post in the works!

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