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To His Coy Mistress
|To His Coy Mistress|
Had we but world enough, and time,
To His Coy Mistress is a poem written by the British author and Puritan statesman Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) either during or just before the Interregnum. The poem is one of the finest and most concise carpe diem arguments ever put in verse.
Marvell probably wrote the poem prior to serving in Oliver Cromwell's government as a minister, and the poem was not published in his lifetime.
The argument of the poem is straightforward. The speaker of the poem is arguing with his mistress and attempting to persuade her to make love with him. He begins with a metaphysical conceit stating that, if he had eternity and wealth, he would spend lavish amounts of time courting her and praising her. However, he says that time is forever chasing the lovers. Were the lovers not to consummate their love, they would only grow old and die, and then instead of being penetrated by her lover (and hence losing her virginity), she would instead be penetrated and devoured by worms in a lonely tomb where there is no love. Therefore, the speaker says, the lovers should combine all of their strength into a single act of violent lovemaking, and then, even if they could not escape time, they could at least make the most of the time they had.
The poetry is notable for its playful, explicit treatment of sex, its total control of tone and pacing, as well as its conciseness and precision in wording. Marvell was himself a Puritan, and a friend of John Milton, and yet this poem may owe its form and content to the courtier poetry of the late Jacobean period. Literary historians will often place this poem thematically with the Metaphysicals (John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Lovelace and others), rather than with the Puritan poets. Certainly, the poem itself is a lyric, an argument poem, and full of conceits (radical metaphors that hinge on paradox). At the same time, the poem shows as well that Puritanism and romantic love were not antonyms. Marvell's "Damon the Mower" poems, probably written later, are also concerned with romantic love, though in a more pastoral form. Since the poem was not published by the author, dating its composition is difficult, and locating it precisely is speculative.
One possible explanation of the striking phrase "vegetable love" lies in the observation that a vegetable comes from the vegetative part of a plant, as opposed to a fruit, that comes from the reproductive part.
"To His Coy Mistress" is also alluded to in Marvell's later poem, "The Garden".
Archibald MacLeish's poem You, Andrew Marvell, alludes to the passage of time and to the growth and decline of empires. In his poem, the speaker, lying on the ground at sunset, feels "the rising of the night. He visualizes sunset, moving from east to west geographically, overtaking the great civilizations of the past, and feels "how swift how secretly/The shadow of the night comes on."
Many authors have borrowed the phrase "World enough and time" from the poem's opening line to use in their book titles. The most famous is Robert Penn Warren's 1950 novel World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel, about murder in early-1800s Kentucky. With variations, it has also been used for books on the history of physics ("World Enough and Space-Time: Absolute versus Rational Theories of Space and Time"), geopolitics ("World Enough and Time: Successful Strategies for Resource Management"), a science-fiction collection ("Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction"), and, of course, a biography ("World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell"). Also in the field of science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a Hugo-nominated short story with the title, "Vaster than Empires and More Slow".
The phrase "there will be time" occurs repeatedly in a section of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", and is often said to be an allusion to Marvell's poem. Prufrock says that there will be time "for the yellow smoke that slides along the street", time "to murder and create", and time "for a hundred indecisions ... Before the taking of a toast and tea". As Eliot's hero is, in fact, putting off romance and consummation, he is (falsely) answering Marvell's narrator.
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