To His Coy Mistress: Beneath the Romance

Kelly McKenzie

Few would argue that on the surface level of Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress" the speaker is a lover advancing a conventional 'carpe diem' line of thought. He systematically reasons with his desired object about the futility of delaying their interlude when the hours available to them are limited, but the lyric may simultaneously function as a metaphor for Marvel's endeavors as a metaphysical poet. Metaphysical writers view poetry as an intellectual exercise, an opportunity to develop ideas in a logical, argumentative structure; for them, the object of poetry is not to serve as an outlet for an effusion of emotional sentiments. If one approaches "To a Coy Mistress" as a discussion of the pressures which time places upon a writer, Marvel's apostrophe takes on an ironic twist. He uses his analytical skills to coax his writing to manifest his intended desires, providing a playful look at the connection between a man and his work. Complicating this relationship is the necessity of negotiating under the terms and constraints of an outside third party: time. Marvel battles to balance his time between his public occupation as a member of the British Parliament, the Hull, and his more private pursuits as a writer. The superficially apparent pleas of a lover seeking a relationship serve as a mirror to Marvel's struggle to conquer his artistic prowess.

The poem itself contains three distinct components of argumentation, all which occur within a syllogistic framework. The argumentation of each division begins with an acknowledged impossibility, represented by the conditional tenses of "Had we," "But," and "Now, therefore." Marvel comprehends his incapacity to master absolutely the antagonist of time, but in this poem, he achieves a victory through the creation of an interpretation of time unbounded by a linear backdrop. He uses a three tiered progression of argumentation: 1) a reflection of the writing process removed from traditional conceptions of time; 2) discourse on the urgency of creating written material within human time frames; and 3) the presentation of written material as a celebration of life.

In the first division, Marvel creates a world ideally conducive to his endeavors as a writer by distorting human measurement of time. In the beginning line, the vast and illimitable capacity of the backdrop blurs the relationship of space and time. With slow moving precision, he presents the image of an idyllic world where there is "world enough" to meditatively approach his muse, poetry, with boundless attention to detail. With the elimination of the constraints of time, he can languidly address the "coyness" of his lover. The term "coyness" captures the emotional and sexual connection between Marvel and his writing and the playful way he manipulates and persuades it to behave in accession with his desires. Writing becomes a feminized object; it is to be a display of beautiful perfection but exists for the male world to manipulate to its advantage, becoming an extension of the man himself. He struggles to produce writing within the constraints of a prudish, stuffy, and demure world where it would be a "crime" to attach oneself to mediocre material. The title captures the tension through the separation of the subject and the object with the description of writing as "his coy Mistress." Through his writing, Marvel attempts to create through written expression a union of expression between his ideas and the outside world.

Marvel's commentary that, given the time, "We would sit down and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love's day," reflects the intellectual stimulation he achieves though writing. The vivid imagery created by the mixture of Christian, modern, Pagan, and geographic references suggests a picture of a man sitting down before he begins the writing process, simply pondering this possibilities, perfecting how to precisely frame his grand vision. However, this suspension of time implies that the finished product of writing will only manifest itself if one continues to "walk" and "pass," words which both come to represent the stages of writing beyond simply daydreaming about it. If poetry is indeed his muse, the word muse the implies that one can become so absorbed in thought that he fails to conclusively formulate his idea. Marvel creates a paradox: while time constrains what we are able to achieve, it is this pressure which ultimately impels us to action.

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