The Disturbing Details in Martell’s To His Coy Mistress

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

“To His Coy Mistress” is a poem by Andrew Martell (1621-1678), who was born at Winstead in Holness, in South Yorkshire, and died in 1678 at his house in Bloomsbury. His father was a clergyman (of Calvinist orientation), who then became lecturer at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hull when his son was three years old. Because of that, the family moved to Hull, and Marvell was educated at Hull grammar School. Then, he starts his university studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar.He finished his studies in 1639, but left Cambridge for London in 1641. He left England in 1643 and travelled through Europe, visiting places like France, Italy, Holland and Spain, and he acquired knowledge of different languages. It is not until 1647 that he came back to England, it is believed that he deliberately went abroad to avoid choosing between the sides that were involved in the Civil War, which had begun in 1642.

The English Civil War was a period of conflicts and political machinations between Royalists (also known as Cavaliers) and Parliamentarians (also known as Roundheads) over the government of England. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. In 1650 he became tutor of Mary Fairfax; whose father was Cromwell’s most important general in the Civil War. In 1657 he befriended Milton as he became his Latin secretary as well. Even when Milton was sentenced to death for his antimonarchy poems, Marvell interfered and tried to convince Charles II to forgive him. Andrew Marvell is considered to belong to a group usually known as “Metaphysical Poets”, a group that includes extraordinary authors such as George Herbert or John Donne. This poem seems to be written by a nameless man talking to a nameless woman. This anonym man desperately loves a lady, and desires to have sex with her. However, she appears to be a bit “coy” about the sexual interaction.

In the first stanza, the speaker tolerates this “sexual shyness”, if there was more time, as it is showed in the first two lines: “Had we but World enough, and Time/this coyness Lady were no crime”. If time was eternal, he would not mind waiting for her, or even praise her beauty and virtues. Moreover, the speaker has showed that her refusal to having sex would be no crime if they had more time, therefore, he has just called her a criminal, for not having sex with him.

A wide variety of imageries and hyperboles are used from now on, which remind of the Petrarchan tradition. A religious conceit is used to express the speaker’s love to this coy mistress, from line 7 to line 10. “I would Love you ten years before the Flood:/And you should if please refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews”. These are exaggerated imageries, his love is older than the Bible’s Flood, and the speaker would accept the refusal of his mistress to have sex until the conversion of the Jews. “My vegetable Love should grow/Vaster than Empires, and more slow.” Another hyperbole. It is observable that the speaker is using the common features of the Petrarchan style, but in a mocking sense. The speaker is comparing his love to the growth of a vegetable, it looks quite ridiculous.

The following lines seem to be nearer to the Petrarchan tradition: “A hundred years should go to praise/Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze”. The eyes, the forehead, and the mistress’ gaze are typical body parts praised by a Petrarchan poet. However, he breaks this “Petrarchan atmosphere” in the following lines: “Two hundred to adore each Breast:/But thirty thousand to the rest.” These lines are extremely explicit, almost erotic. The speaker is using typical Petrarchan imageries to seek the sexual act. “An Age at least to every part, /And the last Age should show your Heart”. The first part is another explicit reference, specifically to the sexual foreplay. The speaker considers that, at least, a whole era for each part of the mistress’ body would be necessary, and the final, longer one, she should show him her heart. In this last line, heart could be interpreted as a double sense metaphor, firstly as love, and as sex. It could also be the female genitals.

“For Lady you deserve this State;/Now would I love at lower rate”. In this final couplet, the speaker changes his discourse and in a Petrarchan way, he tells his mistress that she deserves all of this extremely decorated and explicit talk, and that he would not give her anything less than this. The second stanza is even more explicit than the first one but it crosses a line, his discourse becomes extremely vulgar and scatological. There is no time, both of them will eventually die, and when they will be buried, his sexual desire will turn into ashes. The first two lines of this stanza start with a massive “but”, that contrasts with the whole previous stanza and presents new problems. Time is personified and it even rides a winged chariot: “Times winged Charriot hurrying near:” As time goes by extremely fast, godly entities who manipulate time has always been depicted with wings. In Greek mythology, Chronos is the personification of time and it is usually depicted as a wise old man with a long beard and a pair of wings. What does this winged chariot bring? “And yonder all begore us lye/Desarts of vast Eternity”. Basically, death, deserts of eternal death, where no sound can be heard, and the mistress will not look so beautiful there, and she will not be able to hear this song: “Thy Beauty shall no more be found/Nor, in the marble Vault, shall sound/My echoing Song:”.

The following lines are so interesting and disgusting at the same time: “then Worms shall try/That long preserv’d Virginity:/And your quaint Honour to dust;”. This the first time that the reader knows something about the mistress, apparently, she is still virgin. The speaker is disgustingly expressing the nonsense of her refusal to having sex with him. Someday, she will die, and while she is inside her coffin, buried, the worms will definitely steal her virginity, (the use of the expression “long preserved” reveals how anxious the speaker is to have sex) so, do not waste it, give it to him instead. In the following line, it is observable how the speaker mocks the Petrarchan tradition again, by using biblical references to talk explicitly about the mistress’ genitals and to victimise himself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “quaint” was a euphemistic term for “female genitals”. If she dies, her genitals will turn to dust, and into ashes his lust. All of his lust, passion, will go to waste, her refusal will have consequences for him. It is an extremely vile way of victimising himself. It is a way of mocking the typical Petrarchan love complaint, but the speaker is complaining about sex lacking. The final couplet of the stanza is used satirically, ironically, the grave the perfect place for privacy, but no one goes there for cuddling.

This whole stanza is an ironic warning, the speaker uses nasty images to rush the mistress into having sex, he makes jokes about her genitals using biblical references like “your quaint Honour turn to dust” and mocks the Petrarchan tradition by mixing divine/Christian vocabulary with explicit carnal lust. In the last stanza, the speaker proposes an unusual way of fighting against time. He has told the mistress what will happen if the die, so they should have sex while they are still young, and compares how they should perform the sexual act to “am’rous birds of prey”, which seems to be a bit aggressive. “Rather at once our Time devour, /Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, where this exact line appears as an example, “chapt” means jaw, so the speaker is telling the mistress that he would rather prefer to devour time, than languish in his powerful jaws. And, how would they devour time? The speaker thinks that having sex is a way to control time, to devour it. “Let us roll all our Strength, /all our Sweetness/And tear our Pleasures with rough strife”. Again, the speaker is expressing how he understands the sexual act, as the way to fight time, so they should put all of that passion and pleasure into the bedroom, because it will enhance the experience. The speaker even believes that sex transcends life: “Through the Iron gates of Life”. The final couplet represents one of the most extended thoughts in the 17th century, people believed that the sun rotated around the Earth, and this movement created time. Having sex will not make time stop, but the speaker thinks that it will let them to control it.


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