Sunday Poetry: To his Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell

To his Coy Mistress

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 preserv’d 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 am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d 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.

- by Andrew Marvell

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Poetry has many uses, and the speaker in this poem was employing verse for one of the classics – he wanted to get laid.

You cannot read this poem with too dirty of a mind. “Into one ball”? Can’t believe that a guy writing in 1651 meant what you think he means? Get over it – this generation did not invent horniness, you know. “Languish in his slow-chapp’ed power”? Slow-chapp’d means slow-jawed, and yes, indeed, Marvell was talking about exactly what you think he was. If you thought oral sex was something invented at the Playboy Mansion in the 1950s, you’re off by at least a couple centuries. It’s even worse than you think – even the word “quaint” was intended to be word play with the word that garners shock and disgust even in our jaded age.

This poem is more than 350 years old, and it still has the power to surprise. I guess it’s not just high-minded human traits that are timeless.

Go ahead and enjoy this poem for its subject matter. Given how often poetry is about death, art, etc., it’s refreshing to find a poem that meets us in the gutter where we sometimes belong.

If you want to look at the craft of poetry, though, this poem gets us back to the good old-fashioned iambic beat. Indeed, the insistence on the “dah-DAH” rhythm is so important to Marvell that he even chops the final “e”s out of “preserved” and “slow-chapped” and the first “o” out of “amorous” because he can’t spare the syllable and keep the beat.

But it’s hard to get all musty and academic when the poet is talking about worms in his lady and tearing pleasures with rough strife. If you want to read a poetic response to Marvell’s plea, there are dozens, but my favorite is “His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell“, by A.D. Hope.

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