Today is the birthday of Andrew Marvell (March 31,1621 – August 16,1678), the author of one of the most anthologized love poems, To His Coy Mistress. I love the poem. I saw it described somewhere as a lover asking a virgin to sleep with him. But that is overlooking its wit, its playfulness, its ardour. It’s importunate, urgent, passionate, the way you are when you fall in love, when you constantly think, want to be with and hold your lover and say how much you adore her.
Unabashed, uninhibited, the poem is an unrestrained call for lovemaking, frankly dwelling with feverish anticipation on the eyes and breasts, virginity and dewy skin of the beauty the lover wants to embrace in sheer ecstasy.
Sensual, hedonistic, carnal — the poem is all that, but driving this sexual longing is a sobering thought, mortality. Let’s make the most of the time we have before we die, the poet says, because
“The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”
This kind of witty, uninhibited celebration of lovemaking won’t be found again until well into the 20th century.
Keats, in his sonnet, Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art, does express a longing to be
“Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft rise and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.”
But such explicitness is rare in Romantic and Victorian poetry. The sexuality found in Chaucer, Shakespeare and his successors dries up around the time of Jane Austen (1775-1817), anticipating Victorian morality, which draws a veil around the subject that won’t be lifted till the 20th century.
There are wonderful love poems by the Romantics and the Victorians, but they did not write anything like this.
To His Coy Mistress
By Andrew Marvell
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-chapt 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.
For love poems as witty and uninhibited as this, you have to go back to John Donne (1572-1631) and others who came before the English Civil War (1642-1651) or, like Marvell, lived during it and the Restoration (1660) that followed, when Charles II came to the throne after the rule of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1658). This was also the time when Milton wrote Paradise Lost, when Heaven and Hell weighed heavily on people’s minds, but perhaps that heightened the sexual frisson, sparking love poems as bold and unabashed as To His Coy Mistress.
Yes, it’s naughty and playful, but so is love, which at its best is also constant and true as day follows night, the young fall in love, and lucky, happily married couples grow old together. The youthful ardour may settle down and age into something more sedate, but the attachment grows if you are truly in love. Read John Anderson, My Jo by Robert Burns.