Wednesday, April 6, 2011

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

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 would 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 vaults, 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-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

It's been a trying day for this Fifty Booker, so I think today that I shall be satisfied with a poem that needs a little less explaining, one that so to speak wears its meaning on its sleeve. Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is constructed of one incredible irony, but Marvell has taken no pains to make sure the girders are hidden.

The concept is timeless: The speaker, rebuffed by his lover for taking things too fast, reminds her that life is too short to put things off. It surpasses even "Ulysses" in its expression of life's brevity: "Had we but world enough, and time..." The end of that sentence is, for Marvell's speaker, "we could wait forever before we screw," but the apodosis is so lengthy and strung out that it causes the reader to think on what he might do, had he world enough, and time. It is possible to wonder whether the speaker is being sincere or just a horndog, but the real power in "To His Coy Mistress" lies in the fact that he is both; the poem manages to be both comic and quite grave. Those of you who know better than I correct me, but I can't think of any poem that accomplishes this feat so perfectly. (Donne wavers between two very similar registers, but rarely simultaneously.) That's why I love it.

Of course, it's also just a long string of really terrific pick-up lines. Not every gal or guy will respond favorably to this plea:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life...

...But the worthwhile ones will.

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