To His Coy Mistress Beneath The Romance

To His Coy Mistress: Beneath The Romance Essay, Research Paper

Few would argue that on the surface level of Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” the speaker is a lover advancing a conventional ‘carpe diem’ line of thought. He systematically reasons with his desired object about the futility of delaying their interlude when the hours available to them are limited, but the lyric may simultaneously function as a metaphor for Marvel’s endeavors as a metaphysical poet. Metaphysical writers view poetry as an intellectual exercise, an opportunity to develop ideas in a logical, argumentative structure; for them, the object of poetry is not to serve as an outlet for an effusion of emotional sentiments. If one approaches “To a Coy Mistress” as a discussion of the pressures which time places upon a writer, Marvel’s apostrophe takes on an ironic twist. He uses his analytical skills to coax his writing to manifest his intended desires, providing a playful look at the connection between a man and his work. Complicating this relationship is the necessity of negotiating under the terms and constraints of an outside third party: time. Marvel battles to balance his time between his public occupation as a member of the British Parliament, the Hull, and his more private pursuits as a writer. The superficially apparent pleas of a lover seeking a relationship serve as a mirror to Marvel’s struggle to conquer his artistic prowess.

The poem itself contains three distinct components of argumentation, all which occur within a syllogistic framework. The argumentation of each division begins with an acknowledged impossibility, represented by the conditional tenses of “Had we,” “But,” and “Now, therefore.” Marvel comprehends his incapacity to master absolutely the antagonist of time, but in this poem, he achieves a victory through the creation of an interpretation of time unbounded by a linear backdrop. He uses a three tiered progression of argumentation: 1) a reflection of the writing process removed from traditional conceptions of time; 2) discourse on the urgency of creating written material within human time frames; and 3) the presentation of written material as a celebration of life.

In the first division, Marvel creates a world ideally conducive to his endeavors as a writer by distorting human measurement of time. In the beginning line, the vast and illimitable capacity of the backdrop blurs the relationship of space and time. With slow moving precision, he presents the image of an idyllic world where there is “world enough” to meditatively approach his muse, poetry, with boundless attention to detail. With the elimination of the constraints of time, he can languidly address the “coyness” of his lover. The term “coyness” captures the emotional and sexual connection between Marvel and his writing and the playful way he manipulates and persuades it to behave in accession with his desires. Writing becomes a feminized object; it is to be a display of beautiful perfection but exists for the male world to manipulate to its advantage, becoming an extension of the man himself. He struggles to produce writing within the constraints of a prudish, stuffy, and demure world where it would be a “crime” to attach oneself to mediocre material. The title captures the tension through the separation of the subject and the object with the description of writing as “his coy Mistress.” Through his writing, Marvel attempts to create through written expression a union of expression between his ideas and the outside world.

Marvel’s commentary that, given the time, “We would sit down and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love’s day,” reflects the intellectual stimulation he achieves though writing. The vivid imagery created by the mixture of Christian, modern, Pagan, and geographic references suggests a picture of a man sitting down before he begins the writing process, simply pondering this possibilities, perfecting how to precisely frame his grand vision. However, this suspension of time implies that the finished product of writing will only manifest itself if one continues to “walk” and “pass,” words which both come to represent the stages of writing beyond simply daydreaming about it. If poetry is indeed his muse, the word muse the implies that one can become so absorbed in thought that he fails to conclusively formulate his idea. Marvel creates a paradox: while time constrains what we are able to achieve, it is this pressure which ultimately impels us to action.

Perhaps this creates Marvel’s defense of metaphysical writers, who are notorious for writing in rough verse and direct and simple diction. Such practices demonstrate their philosophy of emphasis on thought over form. By drawing a parallel between the body of a lover and the structure created by a poet, Marvel uses metaphysical wit to parody the conventional belabored admiration contained in works by Elizabethan love poets. Marvel relates the impossibility of the preposterous claims: “A hundred years should go to praise/ Thine eyes, and on they forehead gaze. / Two hundred to adore each breast. / But thirty thousand to the rest. / An age at least to every part.” The hyperbole suggests the insincerity of writers/lovers and questions their ability because they “love at lower rate,” suggesting that the intellectual force and skill of these writers/lovers becomes diluted by such copious attention to the structural nature of the work.

The second division abruptly departs from this world of slow movement with the announcement that “at my back I always hear/ times winged chariot hurrying year.” The personification of time creates a tangible competition between the writer and an outside force which demands that he work at a predetermined pace, explaining Marvel’s urgent call for his mistress to promptly yield to his desires. He creates consequences for A writer suspended in inactivity and unconscious of time. The image of barren and infertile “[d]eserts of vast eternity” suggests the importance of a writer’s productivity and creation. Storing written material “in thy marble vault” for posterity becomes the equivalent to the procreative act superficially discussed in the poem. Marvel acknowledges the transient nature of the “virginity,” “quaint honour,” and “beauty” of flesh through the grotesque and contrasting imagery of “ashes” and “worms,” destroying the physical evidence of its existence. Time provides the catalyst for the destruction, which Marvel can evade only through the legacy of his writing. His mortal body will inevitably perish, and he must finish his artistic work before Apollo in his chariots brings the sun of his final day out of the sky.

Framing this urgency is an underlying fear, not of death itself because, as he says, “the grave’s a fine and private place,” but of a need for others to “embrace” and understand his artistic voice posthumously. He envisions with horror that his “echoing song” of ideas and words will simply “turn to dust” and “into ashes all my lust,” underscoring the fear that his ideas will perish if he can not fashion them into a timeless medium. Marvel relates the exigency of actually conquering his coquettish mistress and performing the act of writing, justifying his intention to end the process of lusting after the desired object- perhaps the attainment of consummate expression- in order to immortalize his soul through writing.

The third division reflects Marvel’s passionate, yet logical, confrontation with the petulant nature of his writing and demanding that it yield to his mastery. Although under ideal conditions, a writer can always spend more time wooing and courting his writing just as a admirer can endlessly praise his desired object, the constraint of time necessitate compromise. While Marvel acknowledges his “slow-chapped power,” he argues that one must relate what “thy willing soul transpires” before “our time devours.” If one considers the poem within a scientific context even, “the youthful hue” which “sits on thy skin like morning dew” takes on an ominous tone of times continuos and cyclical progression. Dew is the condensation of water, which occurs during the beginning of each day and is the temperature at which not enough energy exists in the air to promote evaporation. Perhaps Marvel is hinting at the relationship between man and his decreased state of energy with the progression of each day. Ultimately time ensures the cyclical will overcome the man, but he can affirm life by controlling the day through writing.

Writing becomes a courtship that involves hunter-like aggressiveness. Ideas sit “at every pore with instant fires,” but they must be captured “like amorous birds of prey” before the “instant fires are extinguished.” The hunting process becomes a metaphorical representation of the intellectual exercises sought by metaphysical writers. Poetry manifests the immortal soul because, although his body will eventually decay, his mistress, poetry, is free from “the iron gates of life,” creating the further subject/object distinction between the poet and his work. The hunter pleas with his writing to merge with his will so the earlier distinction between himself and his lover (writing) can unite in mutual achievement: “Let us roll all our strength, and all/ Our sweetness, up into one ball.” Marvel “will make him [time] run” and achieve victory over time when he is able to “stand still” and transform his ideas into a lasting form.

The sexual level of “To His Coy Mistress” is so apparent as to suggest that Marvel, a man who loved intellectual games, is advancing a more complex message. One of the hallmarks of metaphysical poets is the practice of metaphysical conceit, which is a figure of speech that employs unconventional and paradoxical images. Marvel engages in the challenging task of relating the struggles of a writer trying to direct his energy and ideas into a concrete format to the attempts of a lover trying to convince another to engage in sexual relations. The syllogistic framework of the poem seems to support the implausibility of such a relationship, but Marvel succeeds with his logical progression in formulating a unique perspective of a writer’s plight. By constantly shifting its pace, the poem redefines the conception of time, asking one to consider how an artist must control his medium within time’s constraints. The audience feels itself being gently introduced to the endless possibilities of the exploration of ideas just before entering a race against time to understand the frustration, fear and the ultimate explosion of excitement accompanying the writing experience. Marvel succeeds in validating the metaphysical tenets of prose, but only if the audience is clever enough to read beneath the romance.


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