Many of the literary works from the period after the Elizabethan Age are referred to as metaphysical poems. The term was coined by poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a group of 17th-century British lyrical poets who shared interests in exploring metaphysical concerns and using imaginative metaphors. Despite not being formally associated or having personal meetings, these poets were influenced by the modernization of England after Elizabeth, advancements in science, and the social and political issues that somewhat characterized the 18th century. The style of these poems was characterized by wit, exaggerated comparisons or metaphors (such as Andrew Marvell’s comparison of the soul to a drop of dew), uncomplicated verse with intricate stanzas, and a combination of dissimilar images that may be perceived as acceptable to modern readers but were considered outrageous during that time (Reid).
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a poet, Member of Parliament, and social critic. Unlike some other metaphysical poets, he had a close friendship with John Milton and began writing poems about the political and social aspects of the Court while still in school. Through his association with Milton, he became involved in Oliver Cromwell’s political circle. In 1659, he was elected to Parliament and served until his death. Marvell often used poetry to cleverly satirize and criticize his political adversaries without facing accusations of libel. He had an elegant and witty style that drew inspiration from both public and personal events at the time. Interestingly enough, many of his poems were only published posthumously, thanks to the assistance of Mary Palmer (Smith), who may have been both his housekeeper and potential lover.
To His Coy Mistress is widely considered to be Marvell’s most famous poem, written in the early 1650s when he was tutoring St. Thomas Fairfax’s daughter. This poem exemplifies the carpe diem theme, urging one to seize the day and make the most of their time. While traditionally seen as a metaphysical poem, recent analysis suggests that its ambiguous metaphors and ironic tone add complexity to its discussion of sexual seduction (Brody). The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and couplets. It addresses a woman who has been hesitant in responding to the speaker’s advances, exploring his longing for her affection. Beyond the surface argument about seduction, irony and metaphor further enhance the poem. From a pragmatic perspective, the speaker represents all individuals rather than a specific person. This intense and eloquent figure’s sole desire is sexual intimacy with this woman:
The content of this text is a poem.
Had we only enough world and time…
The poem commences with a sense of restlessness, presenting two distinct settings: the one we envision as the reader (or listener) and the one the speaker envisions, which can encompass various erotic or contemplative landscapes. Moreover, from the very title, we gather that this lady is playfully alluring– or at least that is the perception of the author. Another significant theme that emerges is time – the speaker perceives time as their greatest adversary.
My love for vegetables should grow larger than empires, yet more gradually;
This indicates that his love (or lust) knows no limits; what do vegetables do? They grow quickly, expanding and covering the space with foliage. And, if we conceive of love bigger than an empire – the largest political state recognized by the author – that surpasses anyone’s desires.
However, I am constantly aware of Time’s winged chariot fast approaching behind me.
Once again, time is the adversary – constantly advancing; as if the author suggests that if she doesn’t give in to his desires at this moment, time will snatch them away and they will never get the opportunity to make love – almost as if a young person cannot bear the wait for sexual intimacy as they may transition into adulthood too swiftly.
The preservation of virginity for a long time causes your unique honor to become dust.
If time is the foe, then sex becomes the prize. The notion of purposely “preserving” virginity suggests that the mistress is either saving herself or harboring doubts about this chosen path. Consequently, we must question whether the narrator’s emotions are driven by genuine love or mere desire. Is he committing to love, implying solely physical matters?
Now, while we still have our youthful energy and enthusiasm burning through us, let us enjoy ourselves to the fullest.
We witness the argument intensifying, with the entire body consumed by passion, emphasizing the concept of youth and the importance of utilizing it while it is still within our grasp.
Although we cannot prevent the sun from moving, we will cause it to move.
Despite never promising to stop the clock, the lover appears to believe in the importance of consummating.
The poem can be enjoyed and appreciated when read from various perspectives. It highlights the timeless nature of human desires despite changing times. The poem also explores the theme of freedom and imprisonment, as the speaker experiences both emotional confinement and liberation. Additionally, the poem provides insights into the poet’s worldview and reflects the increasing popularity of broader thinking during that era.
The poem juxtaposes contrasting themes of love and death, with sections about graves, vaults, and worms depicting the inevitable destiny of all humans. However, the phrase “world enough and time” is repeatedly used in modern literature to offer a contrast to these darker elements. It is possible that the poem serves as a metaphor for life itself, suggesting that embracing the joys and sensuality of life can defy death and restore our youthfulness. The author perceives seduction in everything, finding allure in the world itself. Additionally, the poem can be seen as a reflection on life, personifying nature as a coy mistress who can both give and take at will. Thus, a sane person’s goal becomes seducing nature through studying metaphysics and alchemy exemplified by figures like Isaac Newton.
The article titled “The Resurrection of the Body: A New Reading of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress'” by J. Brody was published in ELH journal in 1989. The article can be found in print format and spans pages 53-79.
The article “The Voices of Seduction in ‘To His Coy Mistress'” by J. Moldenhauer was published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language in 1968 (volume 10, issue 2, pages 189-206) and is cited in Pring.
Reid, D. The Metaphysical Poets. New York: Longman, 2000. Print.
The book “Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon” written by N. Smith was published in 2010 by Yale University Press, located in New Haven, CT.