This weekend’s installment of the Wall Street Journal’s excellent Masterpiece series examines “To His Coy Mistress” (c. 1650s) by Andrew Marvell.
First, Marvell’s marvelous poem (via the Poetry Foundation):
To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Now, the Journal:
‘Carpe Diem’ in 46 Immortal Lines
The most marvelous seduction poem in the English language combines the logical precision of the mathematician with the wit of a courtier and passion of a lusty lover. Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” has wowed a regiment of English majors, generations of suitors and their valentines since it was written 3 1/2 centuries ago. T.S. Eliot liked it so much that he raided it twice, lifting an image for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and lampooning a couplet in “The Waste Land.”
Marvell (1621-1678), one of the great mystery men of English letters, lived a shadowy life on the continent that led to speculation that he was a spy or double agent. An avid fencer, he impressed his friend John Milton with his command of foreign languages. For 20 years he served as a member of Parliament. His poems operate on “metaphysical” conceits, metaphors exquisitely spun out. Some of the poems achieve a maximum of intellectual complexity and ambiguity.
“To His Coy Mistress,” though, is aggressively straightforward, New School professor David Lehman writes in the Journal. “It mounts the carpe diem, or ‘seize the day,’ argument that neatly falls into a dialectic you can summarize in 11 words: ‘If we had forever—but we don’t; therefore, let’s do it.'”
The poem pivots memorably, decisively, at the start of stanza two: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” (This is the couplet that haunted Eliot.) The tone moves speedily from jovial to threatening . . .
For the rest, carpe Journal.