“My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow”: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Photo courtesy Colton Brown via Unsplash

Photo courtesy Colton Brown via Unsplash

As you might have noticed, Dear Readers, I am very fond of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets, like Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and of course, one William Shakespeare. One of my favorite courses in college was on Renaissance (English) literature, in which Professor Richard Dutton introduced us (well, me at least, I shouldn’t speak for everyone else) to Milton, Marlowe, and Andrew Marvell (and other poets whose last names did not begin with ‘m.’).

You probably know Marvell from other writers’ allusions to  his poem “To His Coy Mistress,” or from the poem itself:

To His Coy Mistress

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
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

 

It’s an excellent poem to read aloud—one of the best “carpe diem” poems in English, its irony and occasionally grotesque imagery undercutting its initial urgent tone. For an amusing riposte to Marvell, have a look at Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress” at the Poetry Foundation.

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