“To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell, is a bittersweet poem that illustrates both the charm and the transience of youthful attractiveness. The speaker attempts to persuade his beloved that now is the best time to begin a romance. The woman he loves is at the peak of her beauty; moreover, she has maintained her virtue. According to the speaker, it would be a shame not to take advantage of her good looks and honorable status. Once time has diminished her appeal, her hand in marriage will not be sought after. Through the use of a narrator whose primary focus is to woo a woman quickly, without having to resort to prolonged courtship, Marvell exposes the shallow, appearance-based aspects of romantic love. At the same time, the poet mocks the fickleness of flowery suitors and, indeed, the tradition of courtship altogether. Finally, Marvell reveals how assumptions can delude a starry-eyed lover into believing that his words will be welcomed by the object of his desire. In accomplishing these literary goals, Marvell manages to amuse the reader through extravagant imagery and hyperbolic declarations of love.
The overwhelming exaggerations made by the narrator, along with his transcendent imagery, make an eloquent proposal. Using hyperboles and allusions to convince a coquettish woman of his undying love for her, the narrator exclaims that, if time were no obstacle, “an hundred years should go to praise/Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; /Two hundreds to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest.” (Line 13-16, Marvell Andrew. To His Coy Mistress. English 102 poetry handout.)Such an outpour of emotions would surely have an intense effect the object of the narrator’s desire, for who could disregard the intensity of these romantic utterings? The narrator clearly expects his coy mistress to be bewitched by the fanciful description of how he would admire her if only he had the time. Telling her that he would adore her forever if he could is indeed a way of proving his esteem for her. It is almost as effective for him to explain his attitude of infinite reverence as it would be for him to spend eons revering his lady love.
Still, the narrator’s sincerity is questionable simply because his statements are so grand. It would be difficult for any mortal to believe that, given the limited time, the speaker of the poem would actually, love a woman “ten years before the flood,” (Line 8) enabling her to “refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.”(Line 10) As he explains, if he and his loved one had all the time in the world, he would spend an eternity trying to win her affection. He muses that they “would sit down, and think which way/To walk, and pass [their] long love’s day.” (Line 3-4) It appears that the narrator fancies the idea of slowly developing a romance with his lady. However, he is too pragmatic to follow through with this fantasy. Conveniently, time does exist, and the narrator is prevented from dwelling upon an unreciprocated love forever. As a matter of fact, the narrator’s heartfelt monologue is designed to emphasize how little time he and his sweetheart have to connect with one another. The speaker uses the notion of death to underscore the way in which time puts demands on lovers.
The narrator’s obsession with time’s ability to obliterate love pertains not only to the inevitability of death but also to the loss of physical allure. If his feelings were more than skin-deep, he would not place such a great emphasis on the outer shell. Thus, Marvell effectively demonstrates the materialistic element of passionate love. The fact that the narrator will lose interest in his mistress as her body ages implies that he is not really in love but merely infatuated. Carpe diem, then, is his motto simply because infatuation cannot triumph over time. Evidently, the narrator has fooled himself into believing that his heart is true. By exposing the way in which physical attraction disguises itself as a deep love, the poet mocks men who shower women with compliments and promises of blissful union. What follows from this critique of male suitors is that the whole idea of courtship is superficial. Men and women court because they are interested in the external attributes of each other. They pursue that which is desirable to their senses and reject that which is repulsive. Seldom do they weigh the deeper qualities of a prospective mate before proclaiming their undying love for that person.
Marvell’s poem effectively raises another issue around the central theme of courtship: the arrogance of male love hunters who view women as beautiful objects to be owned. It is taken for granted by these men that the fulfillment of their cravings is only a matter of time. The only barriers along the path to success are impatience on the part of the pursuer and timidity on the part of the pursued. The narrator has completely disregarded the fact that the woman will have her own opinion about the proposed relationship. The speaker assumes that the coyness of the lady is due to her lack of consciousness of time, and he expects that this is the one and only reason that she has not yet devote herself to him. Consequently, a female’s most important characteristics are her physical endowments, since her thoughts are simply ignored. This concept of women is unfortunate, since marriage is expected to outlast beauty.
What seems at first read to be nothing more than an entertaining piece of art proves to address important social issues. The poem points out the tendency of young people to value physical presentation over strength of character. Moreover, it illustrates the inadequacies of courtship and makes one question the validity of men’s attitudes toward women. Perhaps Marvell was ahead of his time when he exposed the conceited chauvinistic outlook of male love predators caught in the illusory web of courtship.