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Andrew Marvell: Poem analysis » To his Coy Mistress » Themes in To his Coy Mistress

The rush of time

The main theme of To his Coy Mistress is The Transience of Life, expressed through a sense of time pursuing us and propelling us into the grave before we have achieved fulfilment. Marvell's tempo and language become more and more urgent as the poem proceeds. The poet is prepared to fight rather more vigorously than his Elizabethan predecessors, however. Something can be won back from time, but it has to be seized by sheer will power.

The constraints of reality

At times, the theme of love's destructiveness is hinted at. The Petrarchan ideal of idealising the mistress is not only mocked, but seen as destructive, in that it achieves nothing, given the constraints of reality. A timeless courtship ultimately becomes a deadly one.

Borrowed time

Donne's favourite theme of the completeness of the lovers' world is here modified. The lovers cannot make a world of time and space for themselves in the traditional sense of lovemaking. Only in the intensity of their passion can they force time (and space) to obey them, and then for how long?

Investigating To his Coy Mistress
  • Pick out words and phrases in To his Coy Mistress that suggest the poet's passion, and struggle against time
  • Do people today still have a sense of transience and the shortness of life?
Relating to the period of time of Elizabeth I of England.
In the style of Petrarch, an Italian poet of the sixteenth century, who created both a form of the sonnet and presented a courtly ideal of womanhood.

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 winged 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 preserv'd 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 am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.