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. Continue reading