Andrew Marvell, from ‘To His Coy Mistress’

But at my back I always hear
Times winged 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.

This is the middle stanza of Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, which I imagine many will know well. The first stanza begins ‘Had we but world enough and time…’ and the third is a plea to ‘tear our pleasures with rough strife, / Through the iron gates of life’. It must be the classic carpe diem poem in the English language. Life is short, gather ye rose-buds while ye may, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got (thank you Bon Jovi), and all that.

I’d like to compare it with another poem written at almost the same time in the middle of the seventeenth century. Here it is.

John Tatham, ‘To a Simply Coy Mistress’

What though I did swear your eye
Had enough to take a heart,
Yet from mine I will not part:
I have read love’s sophistry.
For know, Proud, I never was born,
To endure your sex’s scorn.

Though I you a lily swore,
Yet the violet’s azured hue,
Is for use more prized than you:
Nor will I those lips adore,
Since the cherries trees do bear,
Are far sweeter than yours are.

Though I praised your swelling breast,
Yet the grape or gooseberry,
Yield a juice more savoury:
Nor will I again protest
To an outside , ’till I know,
‘Tis for taste as well as show.

I think you’ll agree that Tatham’s poem is much uglier than Marvell’s – in every way. Let’s put aside the fact that it’s just lazy compared to Marvell’s. Tatham only really has one idea: ‘I said you were beautiful, but if you won’t sleep with me, then I prefer things I can actually eat’. Some might see a bit of a nod here to poems like Donne’s ‘The Canonization’ where dismissing the clichés of love-poetry makes us trust the speaker’s sincerity. But that’s hardly the effect Tatham achieves. There’s just the strong sense that whoever is being addressed is being treated as something good for physical enjoyment, and nothing else.

How much more attractive seems Marvell! He doesn’t set out to demolish his mistress’s self-esteem. He calls instead on their common frailty in the face of time. There is humility in acknowledging that he shares in it. He seems noble in the face of those ‘deserts of vast eternity’.

I say seems because, of course, Marvell’s seducer is after exactly the same thing as Tatham’s. All the way back to and before Ovid (who came up with the phrase carpe diem), poets have been writing about love as a sort of riposte to oblivion, but it’s always been a bit of a parody of consolations like glory, honour, or piety which have normally been held in higher esteem than a bout of nocturnal grunting. It’s a game, almost a joke, to make fornication sound so noble.

Marvell’s seducer is a virtuoso smooth-talker and half the pleasure of the poem is being taken in by him, but then stepping back and admiring the performance. Tatham’s, on the other hand, is an idiot. He may well get what he’s after (belittling people’s often a good way to get them to do what you want), but he won’t have done it elegantly. All very well for browbeating strumpets, but Marvell was a man of the world who negotiated the transition from Cromwell’s poet to Restoration MP. His poem is one of a man who knows how to use words, who knows how to make people want to do what he wants them to do, not just to do it.

I’ll finish on one particular subtlety of Marvell’s which catches the eye.  It’s when he refers to his mistress’s ‘quaint honour’. His choice of ‘quaint’ here I think excellent. He’s talking about the woman’s chastity and wants to make her concern for it seem absurd. ‘Quaint’ adds a bawdy undertone because, in the middle of the seventeenth century, it’s an old-fashioned but not forgotten word for female genitalia. But this association comes with deniability because ‘quaint’ is being used primarily as an adjective meaning ‘fastidious’. But it’s a word with a very wide range of associations and could also mean ‘cunning’ or ‘crafty’.

So with this one word Marvell is able to suggest physical eroticism without being explicit, and can make his mistress seem prim but also suggest that she’s being deliberately manipulative. Again, because the word means so many things, he could deny he meant any one of them, and so escape looking like a bully (unlike Tatham’s seducer).

In fact Marvell’s is a far more insidious way to influence someone. Because his meaning is harder to pin down all these possibilities will turn themselves over in his mistress’s mind, but are impossible to refute directly. Tatham’s poem is about black-and-white choices – go to bed with me or be damned. Marvell’s is far cleverer, setting out to shape its hearers’ imagination until there doesn’t really seem to be any alternative to giving in. A politician indeed!

Tags: discovering poetry, Language, Love, Poetry, Politics, Sex