Complete Nonsense, Delightfully Expressed

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

Should’st 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 wing-ed 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 honor 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

And 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.

“To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Did any of you fellas talk like this when you were dating your lady?

Perhaps you did. This is, after all, just a better-expressed version of the old line, “Do you want to die a virgin?”

That’s why I call it complete nonsense. Come on, Andrew Marvell. Was this girl really expecting you to wait centuries for her? Or was she just hesitating for a few weeks? I’m guessing probably the latter. And you decided to bring the specter of mortality before her in order to guilt her in to your bed immediately.

But I honestly can’t dismiss this poem because, oh my gosh, it is so well expressed! I hope you laughed several times while reading it, because so many of the lines are funny and clever. The AA BB CC rhyme scheme is flawless, and the rhymes, together with the four feet instead of five per line, run through the middle of sentences in order to hurry us along through the poem. We want to get to the next rhyme, just as Marvell wants to get to the next … thing. And many of these images are so evocative that they get quoted frequently: “deserts of vast eternity” … “time’s slow-chapped power” … “all our strength and all our sweetness.”

I think the content of this poem is a huge piece of eye-roll worthy male manipulation. But the form is so terrific that I love the thing despite myself. I almost have it memorized. It’s a 17th century ear worm.

Marvell has taken a quintessential line, and he has elevated it, through the magic of poetry, into something else entirely.

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