University of Cambridge

A Formalist Reading of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"

Formalism is generally attentive to ‘literature on the page’, and studies the technique, procedure, construction and language—in short, form—in text; to show how aesthetic effects are produced by literary devices. Earlier Formalists took the position that what a work of literature is about—its content—is related to how it is put together—its form. That is, meaning is generated by the way ‘form’ shapes the ‘action’. So, they argue that the formal dimension in poetry, like rhyme, rhythmic pattern, arrangement of words, repetition of sound etc. should be the primary concern of literary study. Now, for a Formalist reading of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, it is necessary to focus firstly on the form of the poem; e.g., the title, syllogistic pattern, style, diction, figuratives like hyperbole, metaphysical conceit, simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, wit, epigram, unified sensibility, time and space etc. Along with these devices, we have to notice how the poetic form develops the ‘carpe diem’ theme of the poem in which the speaker is trying logically to persuade his beloved to allow him a physical union.

To start with the aptness of the title, the poem is a direct address to its speaker’s mistress. And, the conuous third person possessive is noteworthy: to ‘his’, not ‘my’, coy mistress. This impersonality indicates that the writer’s address to his beloved can be an address to any woman of the world. Thus, the text has got a neutral condition and the ‘form’ has universalized the ‘content’. However, we cannot ignore another formal aspect that the body of the poem is written in the first and second person; yet in the title, he coolly acknowledges another audience.

Syllogism is a very important formal pattern in this metaphysical poem. It was a part of rational discourse in the 17th century, but Marvell has ‘defamiliarized’ it by transforming into rational discourse. Here, the poet is trying to persuade his beloved to allow him physical union. In fact, persuasion can be effective and enduring if it is presented logically or reasonably. In this poem, the argument of the poet is developed in a strictly logical form and leading to a definite conclusion. The pattern follows 3 stages of argument, consecutively initiating with ‘if’, ‘but’, and ‘therefore’. The 1st stage begins with a condition of the natural of metaphysical conceit, that ‘if’ he had eternity and wealth, he would spend lavish amounts of time courting and praising her. ‘But’ the condition cannot be fulfilled because time is fleeting and human is mortal. One day the mistress would be penetrated and devoured by worms in a lonely tomb where there will be no love. ‘Therefore’ they should ‘seize the day‘, i.e., enjoy their each and every opportunity of love-making as if it is their last moment. Thus, the conclusion of this syllogistic form is clearly interwoven with the content or theme of the poem.

Again, under the ‘if’ clause, Marvell has used lots of hyperboles in coherence with the impossibility of his desire’s fulfillment. This figurative device is reinforced by metaphysical conceits. Regarding this, the poem manifests exotic location: ‘Indian Ganges’, hyperbolic expansion of time:

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. (13-16)

 We also find startling comparisons or contrasts of some metaphysical (spiritual, intangible, insensible) qualities to the concrete (physical, tangible, sensible) objects; e.g., he compares ‘love’ to a ‘vegetable’ (line 11) in a wagon metaphor. Actually, he uses hyperboles to exaggerate and emphasize his statements to make a more effective poem. Furthermore, this device is powerful enough (here, in closing 3 couplets) to represent human condition in violent, memorable and witty metaphor.

Next, the poet has used metaphysical and microcosmic imagery of ‘time and space’ with much exaggeration. The poem starts with— ‘Had we but World enough and Time’ (1). Then we get the reference to the East and West from lines 5 to 10, where the speaker has used the distance between Indian Ganges and Humber to represent the vast space. The length of time is suggested too by the allusion of ‘ten years before the flood… till the conversion of the Jews.’ Further, the speaker’s unsatisfied desire to court her implies their lack of time. Indeed, Marvell has successfully treated the ‘carpe diem’ motif while dealing with ‘time and space’. Finally, time is conquered by the intensity of passion; and the poet’s yearning metonymies that of all human species of all time and space.

Again, the poem is a persuasion to love in which the speaker uses the emotional power of images with the formal logic. The synthesis that develops from the dialectical movement of the poem is the identification of love with death. For example, the imagery of ‘birds of prey’ and ‘rough strife’ suggests a self–destructiveness, even a death wish. And, the strong image of ‘Iron gates of life’ symbolizes the harsh reality of the world. So, one should seize the passing moment in response to one’s physical demand with all energy and vigor to get its maximum pleasure. In the meantime, he uses esoteric imagery to illustrate his argument. For instance, he describes his life as a ‘vegetable love’- which not only gives connotations of a slow, developing love to grow for his mistress, but also a kind of love that could exist without sensual enjoyment or productivity, as opposed to his carnal desire. Thus, we must remember that the images are related to the establishment of theme.

The poet’s use of simile and metaphor is also remarkable. ‘Amorous birds of prey’ indicates his desire of strong stimulating response from his beloved in love-making. Thereby, the figurative device expresses their fierce and violent passion.

Meanwhile, Time is personified with ‘winged chariot’ to imply the powerful fleeting of moment. In this context, an abstract notion is given a concrete form through a figurative. But this metaphor’s connotation of a fast and furious speed is neatly juxtaposed with the ‘Deserts of vast Eternity’–an atmosphere of a slow, fruitless future. Besides, idealized romantic poetry is mocked through the crude or shocking and phallic imagery of ‘worms’ seducing the mistress’ dead body. Here, the poet is conveying his message of urgency and mortality. After that, ‘I think, none embraces in the grave’–another poetic device called understatement, is used.

The poem, with its wonderful manipulation of images and conceits, shows a truly serious use of sprightly wit. For instance, the speaker argues his case in a witty and ironical manner by lengthening his mistress’ reluctance ‘till the conversion of Jews’. He tries to simplify such an improbability through reasoning. Remarkably enough, his metaphysical wit is founded on analogy and logical progression- ‘if…but…therefore’ as well.

Now, the structural elements of the poem might include features of lines, couplets, strophes, stanza pattern, rhyme scheme and rhythm- the essential aspects of Formalism. Stylistically, here the meaning is concentrated in lines and the idea is compressed in few words. Besides, the manner of writing is epigrammatic:

              “The grave’s a fine and private place

              But none I think do there embrace.” (31-32)

    As for rhyme scheme, the poem is in iambic tetrameter with 8 syllables in per line. Each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Though the rhyme schemes follow a simple couplet pattern like aa, bb, cc and so on, two couplets use slant to irregular rhyme, not simply to vary the monotonous pattern but to reinforce the poem’s theme. For example, lines 27 and 28 represent irregularity: “try/virginity”. It suggests that conventional virtue of virginity is actually an empty, hollow ideal based on a notion that postponing pleasure is better than enjoying it. Again, the apocalyptic vista rhymes are so neatly with the lady’s scruple (“Jews’/ ‘refuse’) that the poem’s wide disproportions are made to seem preposterous.

Then, the variation from conventional rhythm also suggests that we should avoid the strict charge of conventional morality. The poet uses pauses and enjambment (running one line into the next without a pause) to break up neat pattern that the couplet rhyme scheme would impose. And, the irregularity of the poem’s rhythm depicts the natural unsystematic nature of spontaneous thought; while the sudden appearance of a regular, stopped couplet suggests a shift to structural, logical thought- the moral of the poem.

Regarding Diction, the poet uses strong stressed words to make them more powerful: ‘Deserts of vast eternity’ is an outstanding example. Not only that, Marvell’s variation of pace has a pattern of ordinary speech (colloquialism) that shows the flexibility and agility of human voice-according to Emden.

 On the issue of ‘Unified Sensibility‘ (blending of passion and thought), Grierson marshals our attention to ‘the sudden soar of passion in bold and felicitous image in- “But at my back I always hear…”. To him, “this passage seems ‘the very roof and crown of the metaphysical love lyric’; at once fantastic and passionate, that combines all the distinctive qualities of the kind, in thought, in phrasing, in feeling, in music.”

To conclude, Formalism considers that human ‘content’ (emotions, ideas and reality) possesses no literary significance in itself, but merely provides a ‘context’ for the functioning of literary devices. “To His Coy Mistress”, which encompasses the male desire for sex, uses several leitmotifs and forms to build a very emotional persuasion. Certainly, the poem itself is a lyric, an argument poem, and full of conceits (radical metaphors) that hinge on paradox, imagery, wit, colloquialism, and after all, unified sensibility. Here, intense emotion of love or the theme of ‘carpe diem‘ is formed through some unusual tactics, which produce a witty and humorous style.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.

Manchester and New York:Manchester University Press, 2nd Revised edition, 2002.

Marvell, Andrew in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press,

     10 Vol, 1922–1958.

Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 1999.

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