Linda Nguyen
High School AP English class

Now and Then : The Conceptualization of Time in To His Coy Mistress

        Time, of course, is a major factor in any carpe diem poem.  In To His Coy Mistress, Marvell changes the conceptualization of time constantly to convincing effect by creating a timeless utopia contrasted to the harsh realities of the real world.  In the three stanzas of the poem, Marvell goes from the illusionary past into the death-defying future in order to state the need for action in the present. The pattern of Marvell’s poem is roughly this: If there were enough time, the speaker would continue on courting his mistress forever, but time is disappearing fast, so they must take advantage of the moments they currently have and express their love for one another before death comes to claim them; there is no time to be coy.

        Had the speaker “but world enough and time”, he would seduce and flirt with his mistress forever. This fantasy world Marvell creates treats time like a slow waltz in which the speaker confesses his love for the mistress for eons and takes his time in praising each aspect of her body for a long number of years.  But then, as if anticipating the urgency of the next section of the poem, the speaker breaks off his list of her attributes and quickly assigns “thirty thousand to the rest”.  Because of the state the speaker is in, centuries seem to pass by in minutes for him; why else would one devote “an hundred years…to praise thine eyes” and “two hundred to adore each breast”?  These hyperboles greatly exaggerate time for greater effect in the speaker’s love for the mistress, saying that he would “love [her] ten years before the Flood…till the conversion of the Jews”.  The period between these two events crosses a massive amount of time, from the Genesis some time after the creation of the world until the Armageddon, which was to occur at the end of the world.  The speaker also says that his “vegetable love should grow vaster than empires, and more slow”.  He describes their love having the life and property of growth like a plant.  Thus, “vegetable love” is love that grows, takes nourishment, and reproduces, although it grows very slowly. The reader is lulled into a reverie of slow-moving time.

        But in the start of the second section of the poem, the reader is woken up from this dream into the world of mortality.  Here the speaker treats time as an enemy that is to be feared, realizing his own mortality and the advancement of time.  He gives us a vision into the future, which leads into nothing but dust after the worms have done their work.  Time does not grant humans the leisure to stroll through eternity, but torments them with a “winged chariot” at their backs.  The speaker warns his mistress of not ever having loved before facing death and decay, picturing their graves where they will turn to dust and that his lust would turn into ashes.  The eternity that had earlier been offered to his mistress now becomes a vast desert.  Love songs do not last forever but just diminish into an echo.

        When the speaker has realized this new knowledge of his mortality, he is in a frenzied state that leads him into pressuring the mistress to love him or not, and insisting that they should enthusiastically embrace the inevitable and each other.  The only time is now, in which willing lovers discover themselves and achieve fulfillment.  There is a sense of urgency in exploiting the “youthful hue” that exists now.  They have to decide whether they will be the “amorous birds of prey” and devour time or be the victims in which the powerful jaws of time will slowly eat them away.  Marvell creates a frightening awareness of the inescapability of death.  Time is like a predator stalking us, and consequently death will come to greet us all. Marvell then offers a way of  fighting against time, which is summarized in the last two lines of the poem: even though the lovers cannot command time to “stand still”, time can not have control over their love.

        Seduction is the theme of nearly all carpe diem poems, and time is used to emphasize the importance of acting now.  What makes Marvell’s poem unique is the careful combination of time and seduction.  Time hovers over the first section in its slow counting of the years that are available for people to express their love.  Time threateningly enters into the second stanza, persistently reminding that those who postpone their joy in love will have no joy at all.  Time then moves into the present tense, providing the intensity of the current moment, the only time lovers can fully express their love for each other.  Marvell makes the idea of eternity seem more tangible so that when that timelessness is swept away, the alternative seems all the more frightening.  It is this fear that Marvell creates within us to take advantage of what is open to us and “seize the day”.

Text copyright ©2000 Linda Nguyen. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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