“To His Coy Mistress” and “Sonnet 116”: Comparing the Portrayal of Love
In Octavio Paz’s book The Double Flame, he describes three different categories of love that can arise between partners: sexuality, eroticism, and Love. The first category, sexuality, refers to the biological and instinctive urge to reproduce, whereas eroticism descibes the pleasure and desire of the sexual act. The third category, Love, refers to an attraction to the person as a whole, and encompasses an equal sharing of love between the body and the soul. While Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” both pursue the theme of love, each poem describes a kind of love that is different from the other. “To His Coy Mistress” seems to conform to Paz’s second type of love, eroticism; however, “Sonnet 116” posits an alternative to all three of Paz’s types.
The speaker in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” longs for a woman whom he attempts to persuade to go to bed with him. Because they will not live for eternity, the speaker argues, he and his mistress should then “tear [their] Pleasures with rough strife” (43) as soon as possible, while they still have the chance. The speaker’s focus is on attaining pleasure through intercourse, and not on producing offspring. Although the speaker claims that if he had all the time in the world he would spend “thirty thousand” (16) years adoring every inch of her, he perhaps says this only to try and woo her so that he can fulfill his desire as quickly as possible. He knows that he does not have much time, so he can tell her this without ever having to prove it. The speaker is not driven by a biological urge to reproduce nor does he possess an equal sharing of love between his mistresses’ body and soul; he is focused entirely on her body. The speaker wants only to indulge in bliss by having intercourse, and as soon as possible to avoid any chance of his lust turning to ashes. For this reason, the love that the speaker has for his mistress falls under Paz’s second category, eroticism.
Because in the first stanza of “To His Coy Mistress” the speaker focuses on the mistress as a whole person, and not solely on his pure erotic desire for her body, it is tempting to classify the poem within Paz’s third category, Love. The speaker declares that his “vegetable Love” (11) would grow slowly, and be “Vaster than Empires” (12) if he had more time. He insists that he would spend “An Age at least to every part,” (17) indicating he would love her as an entire person, and spend lavish amounts of time doing so. However, the reader cannot be sure that the speaker is being entirely truthful, for there is no way for him to prove this. The speaker wants to engage “now, like am’rous birds of prey” (38) in intercourse, and his aggressive tone indicates that he is becoming impatient. His impatience suggests that the speaker is anxious to explore his mistresses’ body and is not interested in anything else. Also, if he truly did want more than just her body, he presumably would not attempt to frighten her with crude images (“then Worms shall try / that long preserv’d Virginity” [27-2])) into the idea that if she doesn’t give up her virginity soon, if not immediately, she may die a virgin. Because the speaker is not willing to wait and let his love for his mistress develop prior to engaging in the sexual act, and is only interested in making sure his lust does not turn to ashes, his love is purely eroticism.
While Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” illustrates Paz’s concept of eroticism, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” does not fit into any of Paz’s three categories. The speaker describes a “marriage of true mindes,” (1) a kind of love that is solid and “never shaken” (6). Because this love bypasses the body and is centered on the mind, it transcends both sexuality and eroticism. “Sonnet 116” puts little emphasis on love of the body, in fact, even though “rosie lips and cheeks”(9) will diminish as time continues, the speaker asserts that his kind of eternal love will not be altered. Insofar as it considers lovers that are no longer youthful, the poem does not encompass an equal sharing between body and soul, for the body begins to lose its beauty and liveliness with time, and love between souls “beares it out even to the edge of doome” (14). However, while its lovers are youthful, the poem describes Love: there is a true connection between both the young and lively body and the soul. Perhaps, Shakespere suggests, as couples age and the body begins to lose its beauty, love between partners becomes more and more love between two souls.
“Sonnet 116” emphasizes that true love cannot be altered with time. In contrast, the speaker of “To His Coy Mistress” urges his mistress to pursue sex immediately because there is never enough time. While “To His Coy Mistress” illustrates eroticism, “Sonnet 116” describes a kind of Love that Paz does not account for in The Double Flame. Rather, Shakespere suggests a fourth type of love, one that is between souls alone. This kind of love can remain potent with the passing of time, as the body declines into age, and the soul is enriched with experience.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress”. Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Robert Wilcher. New York: Methuen, 1986. 40-42.
Paz, Octavio. The Double Flame. Trans. Helen Lane. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.
Shakespere, William. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. 8th ed. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnston. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 2002. 1092.
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