Grace Note: Andrew Marvell

 

Nassau, Bahamas:  Family at New Year's Day Junkanoo  1/1/14
Nassau, Bahamas: Family at New Year’s Day Junkanoo 1/1/14

          Of all the poems I met in my Grade 11 English Lit survey, Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (ca. 1652) stuck most firmly in my mind.  Of course, it fit a teenager’s amorous anxieties –  its title and the hopeful references to losing one’s virginity.

           I didn’t recall, if I’d realised at the time, its diamond-hard brilliance of language.

           For a post on Thursday, ‘Remember the Medway’, I read Marvell’s satire ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’ (1667).  As I noted there, 300+ years after the deaths of the skewered and 350 after the disastrous Raid on the Medway Marvell pictures, it’s hard to understand without a thorough guide.  But the language is remarkable.

           That sent me to ‘His Coy Mistress’.  If since age 16 I’d read anything of it but snippets, I’d forgotten.  What a surprise!

           It is as bold as I recalled, its objective very clear.  Now, though, what Marvell harkens is not youthful urges but Walter Houston’s ‘September Song’ in Kurt Weil & Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday.

           Marvell’s language and style, however, make the poem justly immortal.  Start with the simplicity of his language.  The first four lines hold one two-syllable word.  Nine lines pass before a three-syllable word arrives, the first of four in 46 lines.

           The short words give his message urgency, pungency.  The poem feels spoken rather than written:

…I would
Love you ten years before the flood

 The images are as direct as the words that build them.

           But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Even in his hurrying, Marvell can’t resist a bit of humor:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

          The short words and simple images speed the reader through the poet’s plea.  Not until one reads it slowly does Marvell’s art begin to show, as you’ll find for yourself below.  Enjoy!

 

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

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *