Marvell’s Plate of Petit-fours: To His Coy Mistress

It is a great honor to have my friend and regular muse, Dr. Holly Ordway, filling in as guest blogger this week.  Holly is a writer, speaker, teacher, and Christian apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. She also has a delightful sense of humor and not a small amount of skill in fencing (both literal and figurative), both of which are on display in her post below. You can follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com/ or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

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.

— Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

———————

A plate of petit-fours: that’s what “To His Coy Mistress” is for me. This poem, with its delicately crafted lines in iambic tetrameter, is loaded with images and wordplay that I want to savor like tiny, delicate pastries: here a cream puff, there a little tartlet topped with a delicate glazed strawberry.

Perhaps it’s part of the charm of this poem that I don’t remember when or where I first encountered it. All I know is that somewhere along the line, Marvell sweet-talked himself into becoming one of my favorites!

In the opening line, the poet-narrator announces boldly, “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime”: surely an appeal to haste! Yet he then spends the next eighteen lines, almost half the poem, lazily elaborating on all that he would do if they had, indeed, all the time in the world… and so I come back to this poem again and again, to savor, leisurely, the images Marvell gives me.

Take, for instance, “My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.” I imagine the growth of ivy up the walls of a building: slow, persistent, curling its tendrils around a window frame here, a corner there: Love, quietly insinuating itself into the heart of the beloved. And this heart’s ivy may be slow, but it’s bold, taking no heed of distances. The territory claimed by Love is indeed “Vaster than empires.”

In the middle part of the poem, the poet shifts gears: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” What a great line! One minute, we’re strolling by the banks of the river, to “pass our long love’s day,” and now Time is hurrying near, the chariot-wheels rattling. I picture an ornate, gilded chariot, with little decorative wings attached onto the side. It can’t be a functionally flying chariot, or else the poet wouldn’t be able to hear it coming – it would just be “Whoosh! Time is upon us!” That’s part of what I love about this poem – the subtle ridiculousness of it, the combination of frivolity with seriousness.

For a moment it seems like this confection has turned sour: he tells his lady that she’s only going to get older, lose her beauty, and die; worms will turn her “quaint Honour” to dust. Oh, dear. Impatience has spoiled romance… but wait, is that a teasing note? “Worms shall try / That long preserv’d virginity: / And your quaint honour turn to dust…” – the poet seems to be working up to a fierce condemnation of his mistress’s recalcitrance – and then “…And into ashes all my lust.” I can imagine the poet laughing at himself here, as he brings the build-up crashing down with the deflation of his own erotic impatience.

The lines that sum up this section are deadpan funny: “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace.” It’s as if he’s giving us a line from a real estate advertisement – a very fine and private place, perfect for lovers! – and then dryly pointing out that most likely not much is going on there!

Perhaps it’s because I delight so much in the humor and playfulness of the poem that I find the conclusion oddly moving. Marvell has been laughing at himself throughout the poem, yet in the closing lines, I feel keenly that he’s captured a certain real urgency in the face of time, a desire that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex. Rather, I hear the echo of longing for all that life and love and beauty promise, with the fulfillment just out of reach. “Now let us sport us while we may…”

Hurry, he says, hurry! Life is short! And yet this hurry-up poem is one that always gets me to slow down, as I savor the delicate pastry-bites of this line, or that line. Marvell, you are a marvel!

Reference

Marvell: Poems. Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. (New York: Knopf, 2004)
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