»  Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

 

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell, 1621-1678

 

•  Background

Written probably in the 1650s, this is far and away Marvell's best-known poem. It is sufficiently famous to have its own Wikipedia page.

I don't know how things go in the 21st century, but in my own late-teen and young-adult years it was cherished by educated young Englishmen as the seduction poem.

The reading here is by the English actor Richard Griffiths.

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•  Notes

[Spelling and punctuation vary among printed editions of this poem. I have followed the usages in The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972).]

"Humber" — A river (technically a tidal estuary) on the east coast of England, dividing the county of Lincolnshire to the south from Yorkshire to the north. A proper river, the Hull, comes down from the north and meets the Humber at the city of Kingston, properly called Kingston upon Hull, but commonly referred to as Hull. Marvell was born at Winestead, about 15 miles east of Hull (the city). He was educated in Hull and served at its Member of Parliament.

"My vegetable love" — This use of "vegetable" as an adjective looks odd to a modern eye, but it was normal in Marvell's time. The OED actually gives more space to the adjective (11½ column inches) than to the noun (4¼). They use Marvell's line to illustrate the meaning: "Having the vegetating property of plants: living and growing as a plant or organism endowed with the lowest form of life."

"your quaint honour" — This "quaint" might mean "elegant, refined" or "proud, haughty." The poet is surely playing word games, though. He and his readers must have known the not-much-older sense of "quaint" as a noun, meaning a woman's private parts. Chaucer, The Miller's Tale: "he caught hir by the queynte."

"instant" — Pressing, urgent.

"Rather … slow-chapt power" — The idea of these lines is that it's better for Marvell and his mistress to devour time than for Time (now personified) to devour them, which he would do by slowly chapping (=chopping) them, presumably with his teeth. The poem is all about time, from the mention of it in the first line to the final couplet, where the movements of the sun stand for time.

•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

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 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
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.