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Given the general interest in the Metaphysical poets. I thought I should include one other, as a pendant as it were to John Donne. However the poet I have chosen is best known for just a single poem, and that cannot be described as in the genre of metaphysical verse. But I make no apologies for including it and him, because it seems to me one of the most remarkable poems in the English language.

I am referring to To His Coy Mistress, which is very simply about the poet trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex with him. This has been a perennial problem for young men through the ages, though in recent years the decline of religious restrictions, and the prevalence of condoms, has reduced it to a great extent in many parts of the world, certainly those where Marvell is likely to be read. This development is a healthy one, and I am only sorry it came to fruition as it were after my own adolescence. But at the same time I think it has contributed to a decline in romance, and what might be termed the romantic imagination, for love no longer needs to be sublimated as it once was.

Marvell was not interested in sublimation. But his very practical plea was couched with such elegance, and with connotations of so much beyond it, that it seems to stand for much more than simple coupling. I will begin by citing the whole poem, before drawing attention to some of its more remarkable features –
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.

The magnificient opening lines set the tone for a meditative excursus into what is described as vegetable love, with its evocations of endless time and space
Had we but world enough and time
This coyness lady were no crime…
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,

But then comes the startling reminder

But at my back I always hear
Time’s Winged Chariot drawing near

He moves on then to the most horrifying mocking of the privileging of virginity
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 into ashes all my lust:
The grave ‘s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

But after that shocking evocation of mortality, and the quiet force of the last couplet, he suggests the obvious solution to the problem with exciting energy –
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 ends on a joyous note that puts firmly in its place our incapacity to halt mortality
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

But though he is now best known for his poetry, Marvell was also a politician, who served both the Republic and then the Monarchy after the restoration of Charles II. He was however critical of the corruption of the latter regime. Amongst his satires the sharpest though was about Holland –
Holland, that scarce deserves the name of   Land,
As but th’Off-scouring of the Brittish Sand;
And so much Earth as was contributed
By English Pilots when they heav’d the Lead;
Or what by th’ Oceans slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrackt Cockle and the Muscle-shell;
This indigested vomit of the Sea
Fell to the Dutch by just Propriety.
Perhaps the strangest poem Marvell wrote was the ‘Song of the Emigrants in Bermuda’, which can be read as an idyllic account of a new British colony. But I rather incline to the view that this is profoundly ironic, recording the greed of the British taking possession of the Americas, treating God as one perceptive commentator has it as though he were a personal valet, stuffing them full of good things –

WHERE the remote Bermudas ride 
In the ocean’s bosom unespied, 
From a small boat that row’d along 
The listening winds received this song:— 
  “What should we do but sing His praise 
That led us through the watery maze 
Where He the huge sea-monsters wracks, 
That lift the deep upon their backs, 
Unto an isle so long unknown, 
And yet far kinder than our own? 
He lands us on a grassy stage, 
Safe from the storms, and prelate’s rage 
He gave us this eternal Spring 
Which here enamels everything, 
And sends the fowls to us in care 
On daily visits through the air. 
He hangs in shades the orange bright 
Like golden lamps in a green night, 
And does in the pomegranates close 
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows; 
He makes the figs our mouths to meet 
And throws the melons at our feet; 
But apples plants of such a price,

No tree could ever bear them twice. 
With cedars chosen by His hand 
From Lebanon He stores the land; 
And makes the hollow seas that roar 
Proclaim the ambergris on shore. 
He cast (of which we rather boast) 
The Gospel’s pearl upon our coast; 
And in these rocks for us did frame 
A temple where to sound His name. 
O let our voice His praise exalt 
Till it arrive at Heaven’s vault, 
Which then perhaps rebounding may 
Echo beyond the Mexique bay!” 
  Thus sang they in the English boat 
A holy and a cheerful note: 
And all the way, to guide their chime, 
With falling oars they kept the time. 

I should however include a specimen of Marvell’s less inhibited criticism. It is not too impressive as poetry, but explains why his monument records his contribution to public life rather than his poetry. This extract, from ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’ records how the navy was allowed to go to rack and ruin – while those giving the orders profited, as we know happens all too often.

Meantime through all the yards their orders run
To lay the ships up, cease the keels begun.
The timber rots, and useless axe doth rust,
Th’ unpracticed saw lies buried in its dust,
The busy hammer sleeps, the ropes untwine,
The stores and wages all are mine and thine.

But let me end on a more positive note, with Marvell’s elegy for Oliver Cromwell. There was no blind adulation, but he understood the man’s greatness, and also how a critical perspective, inevitable in life, would change as history proved the Great Protector’s worth

Yet dwelt that greatnesss in his shape decayed,
That still through dead, greater than death he laid:
And in his altered face you something feign
That threatens death he yet will live again….

So shall his praise to after times increase,
When truth shall be allowed, and faction cease,
And his own shadows with him fall. The eye
Detracts from object than itself more high:
But when death takes them from that envied seat,
Seeing how little, we confess how great.  

Ceylon Today 2015-01-11 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-81951-news-detail-andrew-marvell.html

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