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Time, from "To His Coy Mistress," a poem by Andrew Marvell

Subthemes: Ampleness Suggests Leisure, Leads to Quality, Carpe Diem, Rate It Passes Varies by Pleasure, Never Stops

Marvell’s poem addresses time from two standpoints: if endless amounts of time were available, languorous courtship and flirting could extend for ages, but we’re not getting any younger and while we are in blooming youth is the best time to indulge our sexual passions. We can draw out those subthemes from the poem along with others about time.

“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-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Ampleness Suggests Leisure: Most people feel that they do not have enough time to accomplish what they need to get done nor to relish what they enjoy. The leisurely admiration of his mistress’ various attributes in the first stanza stands for the luxury of being able to draw slowly and richly as much pleasure as possible from the fullness of activity.

*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;

To admire a decorated Grecian urn for hours spends time extravagantly, a promiscuity permitted by leisure unavailable to many people who struggle along continually hounded and harried. The Gatsby wealthy can languish and extend their pleasures as fully as they wish; nearly everyone else must husband their brief moments of fun.

Leads to Quality: From another perspective, we generally assume that a worker who lavishes time will craft a better artifact than will the worker who hastily completes the job. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel required more than four years and “Les Misérables” took Victor Hugo 12 years.. Had he but world enough and time, Marvell’s courting gentleman would have spread his “vegetable love” and admiration over the ages, as befitted the quality of his lady’s attributes.

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.

No lower rate would produce the quality of adoration her beauty deserved. To be able to devote hours to practicing a speech, days to drafting legislation, months to rehearsing a musical, or years to completing a book may be the expected investment that produces an excellent result. Quality of work often can be measured by a ticking clock but focus, capability and inspiration play their crucial parts in how fruitfully the time was spent. Still, the careful and plentiful investment of time, rather than to love at lower rate, often leads to quality.

Carpe Diem: Squeeze everything you can out of today and to heck with tomorrow – that’s the cry of carpe diem. Coming from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s “Odes’, it’s a “throw caution to the winds and blow it all now” philosophy life. Hedonism, yes! Rather than plan at length, ponder and equivocate, wait passively for the right season, the poem’s beseeching man urges his reluctant mistress to “Just do it!”

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’s devour our hours together, he pleads, and revel in what the seducer burns to achieve. This is the key to time in Marvell’s poem: don’t be coy, mistress, let it all hang out. The poem closes with a wonderful metaphor – we can’t stop time but, oh you teasing mistress, let’s squeeze in as much amorous pleasure as possible.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Rate It Passes Varies by Pleasure: For the poor soul chained on a medieval rack, time creeps; for the vacationer with suitcases on the car rack, time flies. The subjective experience of time going by ranges from a crawl to a whoosh. Here, the wooer in Marvell’s poem feels the drag of time acutely; he tries eloquently to persuade his recalcitrant mistress to shift into the faster gear of lovemaking. When forced to keep our nose to the grindstone, when we quiver in anticipation of Christmas, or when Juliet bemoans the long hours until the Capulet’s party, time drags terribly; but when we are caught up in a movie, captured by the dance beat, immersed in a panoramic hike, or beside the love of our life, the clock hands spin too quickly. Our pleasure sets the metronome of our inner clock.

Never Stops: Among the unstoppables we can include the tides, death, taxes, and time.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

The winged-Mercury chariot never falters, even for a second, and the courting lover of the poem knows that youthful sensuality similarly passes and fades. In the fullness of time, all of us succumb.

*Rather at once our time devour *
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, “slow-chapped power” means “slowly devouring jaws.” In short, the poem’s hero feels like he’s dying as Time slowly eats him. We can’t go back and re-create time nor save it in a jar, we can only make the best use of it right now by our present lights. Life stretches away infinitely for the young; is measured and cherished by the middle-aged, and speeds all too quickly to the end when we are old. The poem juxtaposes sensual passion with death’s scythe:

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

To read about subthemes of time that are not closely associated with this poem or the other three creative works, please visit Additional Subthemes.

Marvell’s passionate romancer fulminates against his mistress’ refusals and pace; acutely aware of the degradations of time and the inevitable loss of physical delight; he is aroused and wants to make love right now without all this extended foreplay. Every minute not seized means pleasure delayed, diminished or possibly lost. Time is of the essence.

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