Andrew Marvell and the Metaphysical Poem

Many of the literary works from the period after the Elizabethan Age are known as metaphysical poems. The name was coined by poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a group of British lyrical poets of the 17th century who shared interests in the investigation of metaphysical concerns and the use of inventive metaphor. The poets were never formally affiliated, and most never met – but were influenced by the modernization of England after Elizabeth, the new sciences, and the social and political issues that somewhat characterized the 18th century. The style was characterized by wit, far-fetched similes or metaphors (for example, Andrew Marvell’s comparison of the soul with a drop of dew), simple verse with complex stanzas, and in a way, a combination of dissimilar images that are not unpleasant to the modern ear, but were quite outrageous at the time (Reid).

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was one such poet; and also a Member of Parliament and social critic. Unlike some of the other metaphysical poets, he was a colleague and friend of John Milton, and began writing poems that celebrated the political and social life of the Court while he was still in school. His friendship with Milton allowed him to be attached to Oliver Cromwell’s political sphere, and in 1659 was elected to Parliament, where he remained as a vocation until his death. Often, he would satirize and criticism his political enemies in poetry, sly enough as to not be considered libelous, but plain enough to make a point. His style was elegant, quite witty, and used events of the time, public and personal, as inspiration; In fact, many of his poems were not even published until after his death, through the machinations of his housekeeper and potential lover, Mary Palmer (Smith).

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Considered by many to be his most famous poem, To His Coy Mistress was probably written in the early 1650s, when Marvell was the tutor to the daughter of retired commander St. Thomas Fairfax. It is one of the best examples of the carpe diem poem in the English language, meaning to seize the day, or make the most of the time one has. Having been read by students for centuries as an example of the metaphysical poem, some scholarly materials now point to the way ambiguous metaphors and suspicious irony make the poem farm more complex on the subject of sexual seduction (Brody). Technically, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter and rhymes in couplets. In general, the poem addresses a woman who has been rather slow in responding to the speaker’s sensual advances and his reasons for pining for her affections. On the surface, the poem is a logical argument about sexual seduction, but the use of irony and metaphor open up a bit more. On the pragmatic level, we see that our speaker really is not a specific person, but everyman. This man is intense, speaks eloquently, but essentially has one thing in mind – he desires this woman sexually:


Literal Interpretation

Had we but world enough, and time….

The poem begins with an air of impatience, but we are given really two settings; the setting we imagine as the reader (listener) and the setting the speaker imagines which could be a host of either erotic or musing areas. Plus, simply by reading the title, we have a point of view that this lady is teasing – or at least the author thinks she is – coy. One major theme, too, is time – the speaker sees time as the big enemy.

My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires, and more slow;

This implies that his love (or lust) has no bounds; what do vegetables do? They grow rapidly, spreading out and filling the area with greenery. And, if we think about love vaster than an empire; the largest political state known to the author, that is far and above what anyone might wish.

But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;

Again, time is the enemy – it is always encroaching; almost as if the author is saying that if she doesn’t succumb to his desires now, time will get them and they will never ever have the chance to make love – almost as if a teenager simply cannot wait for sex because they might grow into adulthood too quickly.

The long preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust

If time is the enemy, the sex is the reward; the idea that the virginity is purposefully “preserved,” though, implies that the mistress is either saving herself, or is really not convinced that this is the right move. And, we thus must ask ourselves, does the narrator really love – or just lust? Is he promising love, meaning physical love only?

Now therefore, while the youthful hue…. At ever pore with instant fires, Now let us sport us while we may

We now see the argument burning even more fiercely – every pore of the body enflamed with passion – and the idea of youth, and using youth while we still have it.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run

And time again comes up – while the lover never promises that he can stop the clock, he seems to believe that consummating

Reading the poem on that level is certainly both enjoyable and meaningful. It does tell us that times may have changed, but people essentially have not; that desires are the same from generation to generation. What is also particularly enlightening is the continual images between freedom and imprisonment; the speaker first is trapped in his feelings, then freed by his feelings, then trapped by time and events, but then freed by love. However, on another level, we can get inside the head of the poet (Marvell) and glean some insights into the worldview of the time, and the manner in which more expansive thinking was becoming popular.

For instance, there is a contrast between the opening and the sections dealing with graves, vaults and worms – these are not visions of love, but of the destiny that awaits all humans. The phrase, “world enough and time,” though, has been used again and again in modern literature, and seems to be in contrast to the doom and dark of the graves and worms. Perhaps the entire poem is Marvell’s metaphor for life – almost as if we should push through the joys of life, which are the sensual side as metaphors for the author, then we will cheat death in a way and become more human and youthful in the process. The “dew” becomes seductive, in fact, everything is seductive in nature – the world is seductive for this author (Moldenhauer). Too, the entire poem might be read as a treatise on life – with nature being the coy mistress who gives and takes at a whim, and in this case, to seduce nature (e.g. the metaphysics and alchemists of Isaac Newton, etc.), becomes the goal of every sane person.

Works Cited

Brody, J. “The Resurrection of the Body: A New Reading of marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.” ELH 45.1 (1989): 53-79. Print.

Moldenhauer, J. “The Voices of Seduction in “To His Coy Mistress”.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 10.2 (1968): 189-206. Pring.

Reid, D. The Metaphysical Poets. New York: Longman, 2000. Print.

Smith, N. Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

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