(Im)Mortality and the Poem: Comparing and Contrasting Marvell and Shakespeare
The meaning behind both Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Shakespeare’s sonnets has been debated since their respective publications. Marvell’s poem and specifically Shakespeare’s sonnets 55 and 60 have undeniably divergent content but nevertheless convey themes relating to life, death, and love. The ideas illustrated through the lines reveal somewhat of a mutual disdain for death, as well as a passion to live and love. The poems emphasize mortality—the approaching doom and death—in a similar way that presents time as a personified villain that might be depressing but definitely truthful.
While Shakespeare focuses more on the proud immortality of his poems and everlasting praise of his subjects, Marvell focuses more on what sounds like a desperately eloquent call for sex (be it for physical pleasure or procreation) with his subject. However, the key to contrasting them comes in the singular moment when Marvell blatantly says something about poetry and his work of art. The speaker in Marvell’s poem shows—in a way that might offend, provoke, and certainly challenge the other poet—that his song may echo, but it will still fail to grant him the satisfaction he so greatly desires in life.
The first two couplets of the two poems can provide great insight into their themes and messages. Marvell’s poem opens with the rhyme: “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime” (1-2). This opening seems simple enough to comprehend: if not for the undeniable truth that we (speaker and “lady”) all die, it would be less problematic for the lover to be timid or bashful or withholding.
Or, as Jules Brody writes, “Under another set of rules, the narrating voice is made to say, I would love and woo you as poets do in their books; I would unfold and enact my patient, selfless adoration in extravagant versions of the accustomed literary forms” (Brody 58). This is an interesting analysis for a poem that does not explicitly discuss poetry as an art form, as opposed to Shakespeare’s sonnet, which does so in its opening lines.
In the beginning of Sonnet 55, Shakespeare writes, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). Unlike in Marvell’s first two lines, the speaker addresses no one in particular, but rather states a bold thesis: none of these tangible, strong, powerful symbols will last longer than the very poem the reader has before him or her. The speaker claims even the rock solid, glorious statues of royalty can be outlived, not necessarily outshined, by the words of a poor poet.
Such a theme is not hard to find in Shakespeare’s famous sonnets. In Sonnet 60, for instance, the speaker discusses time (with a capital T, personified as a “he”) and therefore the inextricably linked themes of life and death. These two opening lines from Sonnet 55 bear a striking resemblance, if not in meter sonority, then in content, to the two final lines from Sonnet 60: “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand, / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand” (13-14).
Shakespeare depicts time as a powerful, personified male villain who is cruel in his “glory fight,” rendering time as something resembling more of a grim reaper figure than a system of measurement. Simply and eloquently explained by Robert Arbour, “Sonnet 60 portrays time as a destructive, implacable force, but it concludes with a hopeful message of the preservation of human value through poetry” (Arbour). In other words, Shakespeare, or at least the speaker, see immortality through poetry—his song as a defense against the darkness that awaits us all.
Marvell also sees time in this Shakespearian fashion, as his second verse takes a turn to bring the reader back to reality—out of the world wherein space and time are nonexistent, where one can devote an “age at least to every part” in praising the mistress. “But,” writes Marvell, “at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” (21-22). The word “time” appears once in each verse of “To His Coy Mistress,” and unlike Shakespeare, Marvell does not capitalize it each time (only in the aforementioned instance, presumably due to the line break).
Sonnet 60’s capitalization occurs when the speaker says, “And Time that gave doth now his gift confound,” which suggests a sort of godly or biblical authority (8). Still, this idea of time’s power is a constant: the speaker feels time’s “winged chariot”—the chief vehicle in ancient wartime being taken to angelic and thereby biblical proportions—rushing towards him. In other words, he can sense his own mortality, the shortness of life, and the upcoming death that is chasing him, his coy mistress, and his reader.
Shakespeare continues to address a person deserving praise (“you”) in Sonnet 55, much like Marvell’s mistress, as he writes, “Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom. / So, till the judgment that yourself arise, / You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” (10-14). This ending can be read in a variety of ways.
It seems established that the speaker is acknowledging that “you” (perhaps a woman, though there is little proof for such a claim within the lines) will die (“the ending doom”). Sonnet 55’s close can be read as sort of a carpe diem approach to life: until Judgment Day, you continue to live, to “pace forth,” in this life, and dwell in the eyes of the speaker. The subject “you” can also be seen as living in this—literally this poem, this line, this verse—and forever dwell in the eyes of the reader.
Thus, the overarching philosophy behind Shakespeare’s poem is best explained by Michael Shapiro’s very basic but easily provable assertion that “Sonnet 55 in its barest outlines is an assertion of the liberating power, via their incorporeality, of words…as contrasted with the limitations inherent in monuments and other static objects” (Shapiro 84).
But on the note of “carpe diem,” it would be wise to turn to Marvell’s poem, which, as Robert W. Halli writes, is generally read as a “carpe diem, invitation-to-love, seduction poem” (Halli 57). Such a read is easy to argue as nearly every line sounds like a call for lust or love from a withholding virgin woman. Furthermore, Marvell’s final verse uses the word “now” three times: “Now therefore, while the youthful hue….Now let us sport us while we may…And now, like am’rous birds of prey” (33, 37, 38).
This indeed suggests a seize-the-day or live-in-the-moment mentality, in this case with regards for sexual activity. Halli writes his essay arguing against the status quo analysis in defense of a reading that sees “The persuasion of procreation does provide a coherent reading of all the elements of ‘To his Coy Mistress’” (Halli 58). However, in the context of Shakespeare’s sonnets, like 55 or even 60, Marvell’s poem is even more profound than either of these analyses. In fact, it can be seen as a follow-up—moreover, a challenge—to his predecessor.
The most crucial part of Marvell’s poem comes in that second stanza, the turning point, as the speaker discusses how “Deserts of vast eternity” lie “yonder” before all of us.” (It should also be noted that, like his predecessor, Marvell does not attempt to speculate or discuss what he believes death might literally be—heaven, hell, nothing—so each poem still has merit and offerings to the religious and the materialist.) In this verse, Marvell writes, “Thy beauty shall no more be found, / Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound / My echoing song; then worms shall try / That long preserv’d virginity” (25-28).
The most prevalent readings of this poem emphasize the rather gruesome and graphic image and suggestion of the speaker: if this coy mistress does not let me take her virginity, eventually the worms in her casket will. But in this casket, wherever her soul may be, it is vital not to overlook that not only will her virginity be a waste, but so will his poem! Just as none “embrace” in the “grave” and “thy beauty shall no more be found,” neither will Marvell’s “echoing song.”
This is completely contradictory to Shakespeare’s proud assertions, the crux of his sonnet(s). While Shakespeare argues for the immortality of his words, the “living record” of his subject’s memory, Marvell admits that once his subject is underground, that living record will be of little use. Even if we are reading Marvell’s poem in 2010, it makes no difference in his effort to seduce his coy mistress. It almost seems as though Marvell’s poem is less about the limitations of love and life, but the limitations and mortality of poetry.
Shakespeare’s 55th and 60th sonnets, as well as Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” address a potential lover who warrants everlasting and poetic praise. Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, seems to emphasize the power of poetry in the context of life and death, while Marvell’s focuses less on his craft and more on his subject (the speaker’s “coy mistress”).
Even though Marvell spends most of his verses discussing life, death, and love, his views on poetry’s role can also be unearthed and furthermore proved greatly divergent from those of Shakespeare. The reader can thus part from the more obvious, albeit criticized, readings of “To His Coy Mistress” and find the more powerful and potent themes of our mortality as well as art’s immortality, when contrasted with Shakespeare’s two sonnets.
Arbour, Robert. "Shakespeare's sonnet 60." The Explicator 67.3 (2009): 157+.
Brody, Jules. "The Resurrection of the Body: A New Reading of Marvell's to his Coy Mistress." JSTOR 56.1 (1989): 53-79. jstor.org.
Halli, Robert W. "The Persuasion of the Coy Mistress." Philological Quarterly 1 (2001): 57-70. Print.
Marvell, Andrew. "To His Coy Mistress." The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Shorter Fifth ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 293-294. Print.
Shakespeare, William. "Shakespeare Sonnet 60." Shakespeare Online. Amanda Mabillard, 27 Nov. 2009.
Shapiro, Michael. "Sound and Meaning in Shakespeare's Sonnets." JSTOR 74.1 (1998): 81-103. jstor.org.