John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]


Carpe Poem - Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

     "Seize the day." For cavalier poets, there seemed to be little else they found nearly as interesting write about than the carpe diem concept. The form of carpe diem poetry is generally consistent, almost to the point of being predictable. Though Andrew Marvell worked with the same concepts, his modifications to them were well-considered. In "To His Coy Mistress," Marvell makes use of allusion, metaphor, and grand imagery in order to convey a mood of majestic endurance and innovatively explicate the carpe diem motif.

     Previous carpe diem poems (such as those written by Robert Herrick at the same time period) often took an apostrophic form and style which stressed the temporality of youth. The logical extension was to urge the recipient of the poem to take advantage of that youth to further her relationship with the narrator. They were often dark and melancholy in theme, underneath a light exterior of euphony and springtime images (perhaps to urge consideration of the winter to come).

     Marvell chooses not to employ many of these techniques in the opening of "To His Coy Mistress." Instead, his images and tools stress how he wishes his love to be– tranquil and drawn out. Rather than beginning with a focus on the concept of death, he opens the poem with the lines, "Had we but world enough, and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime" (ll. 1-2) He will later take on the trappings of the carpe diem poem, but his focus will then be on the grandeur and passion of love, rather than its instability.

     To begin to slow the passage of time in his poem, Marvell makes reference to past and future events on a grand scale. His allusions to religious scripture early on in the poem give the impression of vast ages passing, spanning most of time itself.

...I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews. (ll. 7-10)
The period from ten years before the flood (which occurs in Genesis some time after creation) until the conversion of the Jews (which was to happen at Armageddon) crosses a massive amount of time. This allusion is one of the several techniques Marvell uses to turn the focus away from impending death to an ideal world without it.

     Another such technique is the metaphor. Lines 11-12 read, "My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow." The first line makes the narrator's love a slow-growing vegetable, implying really "plant" more than specifically garden vegetable. This image is of an all-conquering vine which insidiously works its way through a forest or field, overtaking incredible spaces until it becomes "vaster than empires." Such a growth would take far longer than humans have to live– it is a job for the enduring vegetable which, returning year after year, outlives people's short lifespan and continues to grow. Time is not important to the plant.

     Perhaps the most unifying strategy which Marvell uses in the first half of his poem is that of imagery which seems to spurn time in favor of the menialities of love. "We would sit down, and think which way / To walk, and pass our long love's day" is an idyllic scene, free of the pressures of age. Not only are they walking (which implies calmness), but they are sitting down and considering which way to walk on their "long" day. Only freed from the concerns of impending deadlines (or death) can one "waste" their time on silly courting. This carefree attitude is unusual in a poem whose entire goal is make known "Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near" (l. 22).

     All of these images occur in the first half of the poem. Marvell's ploy here is to lull the reader into a passiveness and the languid pace that he desires to see in love, so that his eventual theme will be all the more startling when it is considered. After so much repetition on the theme, it becomes easy to say "death is coming, so we should love" without any particular impact behind the thought. Now, by contrasting the alternative to love caught in time, Marvell demonifies time to be a tyrant, slowly killing us all. He then states that an escape from and method of fighting against time is to love with a passion and defy his aging effect (ll. 40-46).

     By rethinking the carpe diem theme, Andrew Marvell makes his point more effectively than many other poets working with the same ideas. Using the methods described above, he makes the ideal scene of timelessness more concrete, so that when it is swept away the alternative seems all the more frightening and imperative. In this way he recreates a feature of real life– death is imperative, but trivialities can often make it seem distant. Invariably, however, it will greet us all.

Text copyright ©1999-2003 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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