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Themes in To His Coy Mistress
Live for the Moment: The concept of carpe diem runs throughout the poem, and the speaker's arguments towards his beloved reflect this. Love functions as a thematic counterpoint to the death imagery associated with the passing of time. The first stanza sees the speaker detailing all of the ways that he would adore his mistress if given the time. His argument is also framed in terms of love. The speaker claims that it is not haste or impatience that drive him; rather, it’s the desire to spend as much time as possible in consummate bliss with his mistress. Love is how the speaker and his mistress can win a victory over the relentless passing of time because every second spent well is a moment they win back from their villainous pursuer.
Time as the Enemy: Time is personified throughout the poem as a villain who seeks to send the speaker and his mistress to the grave. The idea that time is actively working against the lovers forms the basis of the speaker’s argument in favor of consummating their love sooner rather than later. Tied up in this fear of time is the fear of death. The speaker utilizes images of worms, dust, and ashes to highlight the future that he sees ahead of his mistress and himself. The association between time and death is cemented as “Time’s winged chariot” draws the lovers closer to “the deserts of vast eternity.”
Themes Examples in To His Coy Mistress:
Text of the Poem
"But..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The “but” at the beginning of the second stanza implies that the romantic suggestions put forward in the first stanza are unrealistic. The second stanza moves into an argument for why drawn-out courtships are not practical because time is catching up to the speaker and his mistress with every passing moment. This captures the thematic concept of time as an enemy seeking to steal away their ability to court slowly. The transition away from the grand romantic posturing of the first stanza also shifts the tone, with the speaker becoming less adoring and more urgent in his arguments.
"Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The poem closes on a call to action to the mistress to help win a victory of sorts against the passing of time by indulging in pleasure with the speaker. Though they cannot “make the sun stand still,” the lovers can use what time they have left to its fullest. In doing so, they can become masters of their incorporeal pursuer.
"lust..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The first stanza details the adoration the speaker has for his lady and the time he would devote to courting her properly if it were available to him. He makes his love clear through the ways he would dote upon her if given the time. However, the urgency of the speaker’s desires offers a different reading. It raises the question of whether his affections are genuine or false. Since time is a limited resource, perhaps he is making promises he knows he will not have to keep.
"Time’s wingèd chariot..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The personification of time as a pursuer adds a sense of urgency to the speaker’s arguments. Since time is cast as the villain within the poem, equipping it with a “winged chariot” contributes to the idea that the passing of time is not only inevitable, but also sinister.
"you deserve this state..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
This line is an appeal to the ego of the lady. The speaker suggests that she deserves to be courted with the greatest possible grandeur. It also functions as a lamentation by the speaker that he cannot make good on his proposed plans because time moves so quickly.
"Had we but world enough, and time,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The speaker frames time as a limited resource, introducing the theme of carpe diem. Poems with this theme embrace living in the present moment and often feature lovers asking their paramours to seek pleasure with them. In Marvell’s poem, the speaker wishes to “seize the day” by consummating his love for his lady in the moment.