To His Coy Mistress

What’s the best way to get someone to enter into a passionate, steamy relationship in the seventeenth century? For Andrew Marvell’s speaker in “To His Coy Mistress” (1681), describing death in great detail, including worms and physical decay, is the preferred course of action! By analyzing the metaphors, personification, and symbolism in “To His Coy Mistress,” we’ll examine how the speaker portrays themes of time, life and death, and youth in order to persuade his lover that they need give in to their passions instead of waiting for death.

To His Coy Mistress To His Coy Mistress

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Table of contents

    “To His Coy Mistress” Overview

    Written By

    Andrew Marvell

    Publication Date



    Iambic tetrameter

    Rhyme Scheme


    Poetic Devices










    Enjambment and end stop



    Frequently Noted Imagery

    Indian Ganges’ rubies

    "Vegetable" love

    Vast empires

    Time’s winged chariot

    Deserts of vast eternity

    Marble vault

    Worms taking her "long-preserved virginity"

    Dust and ash


    Youthful hue on skin

    Morning dew

    Fire in the skins pores

    Birds of prey

    Iron gates of life

    Running sun


    Romantic and peaceful shifting towards lustful and urgent

    Key themes

    Life and death

    Youth and sexuality


    Life is short and death is inevitable, so you should give in to your passions while youre still young and able to.

    The Context of “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

    Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) is one of the greatest metaphysical poets of his time, yet very little is actually known about his personal life. “To His Coy Mistress” is thought to have been written during the 1650s, a time of political unrest in England when English society was transforming socially and politically after the English Civil War. Marvell himself seems to have escaped any involvement in the war.

    “To His Coy Mistress,” though completely devoid of politics, was written during a time of extreme social and political turmoil. Its focus is on ordinary life in the countryside and, therefore, could be a reflection of Marvell's desire to avoid political disputes and retire to a simpler life.

    “To His Coy Mistress” is one of Marvell’s several love poems, but it is unclear whether Marvell himself ever actually married. He also never had children. After Marvells death, his housekeeper, Mary Palmer, claimed the two secretly married in 1667. There are no records that support her claim, and some scholars believe she was merely involved in an inheritance scam. The mystery surrounding Marvells love life adds to the greater mystery behind his poetry.

    The social turmoil of the English Civil War began to unfold with religious and political tensions spreading to the monarchy and Parliament. In 1649, the Parliamentarians, backed by the Puritan Church, executed King Charles I for treason. Oliver Cromwell assumed control of the country as Lord Protector for most of the 1650s. This time period is known as the Interregnum and is marked by a shift from the power of the monarchy towards a sort of democracy. Scholars believe it was during this time period that Marvell wrote “To His Coy Mistress.”

    Interestingly, Marvell seems to have avoided the Civil War entirely. He was traveling and tutoring for most of the 1640s and 50s. But he did back both Cromwell and King Charles II at various times during and after the war. His political allegiance shifted throughout his life, allowing him to escape political repercussions.

    “To His Coy Mistress” Full Poem

    Had we but world enough and time,This coyness, lady, were no crime.We would sit down, and think which wayTo walk, and pass our long love’s day.Thou by the Indian Ganges’ sideShouldst rubies find; I by the tideOf Humber would complain. I wouldLove you ten years before the flood,And you should, if you please, refuseTill the conversion of the Jews.My vegetable love should growVaster than empires and more slow;An hundred years should go to praiseThine 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 hearTime’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;And yonder all before us lieDeserts of vast eternity.Thy beauty shall no more be found;Nor, in thy marble vault, shall soundMy echoing song; then worms shall tryThat 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 hueSits on thy skin like morning dew,And while thy willing soul transpiresAt 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 devourThan languish in his slow-chapped power.Let us roll all our strength and allOur sweetness up into one ball,And tear our pleasures with rough strifeThrough the iron gates of life:Thus, though we cannot make our sunStand still, yet we will make him run."

    Marvells “To His Coy Mistress” Summary

    The speaker of the poem is addressing a woman hes been courting who acts shy and modest in a flirtatious manner. He tells her that if he had an eternity to live, he would spend all his time building up his love for her. They wouldnt have to rush, and he would spend years admiring every part of her body. He says he wants to love her like that, and she deserves nothing less. But, he contends, they dont have eternity to explore and adore one another. He is acutely aware of how time will soon turn them into corpses, and their youth will waste away.

    The speaker knows that his mistress regards her virginity very highly, but, he argues, it wont matter in death. She wont have a chance to change her mind, and her virginity will be taken by the worms. Instead of waiting, growing older, and facing their own mortality, the speaker argues they should make the most of the time they have. They cant make time stand still, but if they do what they want and give in to their pleasures, they can command time to work for them instead of against them.

    “To His Coy Mistress” Structure

    “To His Coy Mistress” is a dramatic monologue style poem. This means that the speaker is addressing a silent audience (rather than the reader) and expressing his intimate thoughts and feelings through his speech. The poem was written as a 46-line single stanza poem with three sections, expressed by indents on lines 21 and 33. “To His Coy Mistress” is written in iambic tetrameter using rhyming couplets. The formal structure is set in juxtaposition to the pastoral, easy setting and tone of the poem. The juxtaposition and the structure of the poem situate it in the category of metaphysical poetry.

    Dramatic Monologue: A type of poetry in which a single speaker addresses a silent listener. The observations and comments of the speaker on his/her own story give readers psychological insight into the character.

    Metaphysical poetry: Poetry that addresses personal and intellectual complexities using devices such as conceits (unique extended metaphors), contradictions, and ambiguities. It also examines life, death, and the universe.

    “To His Coy Mistress” Analysis and Literary Devices

    The poem is rich in poetic devices, making it an iconic and memorable poem. What do you think of it? Do you think he is pressuring her into sleeping with him? Do you find it romantic or tasteless?! Lets analyze this so-called love poem in more detail.

    Personification and Metonymy

    The personification of time places it as the speakers biggest antagonist in the poem. He argues that he would be happy to love his mistress slowly, but my back I always hearTime’s wingèd chariot hurrying near (21–22).

    The chariot itself is a metonymy for time. Instead of an abstract concept, time is a two-wheeled vehicle racing upon the speaker. Chariots were often used in ancient warfare, implying that it would be very bad for the speaker if the chariot caught him. It would probably mean death, which he wants to escape. Time is personified as if it were driving the chariot and hurrying life along.

    Personification: Attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

    Metonym: The substitution of the name of a thing or concept for something that is closely associated with it.

    To His Coy Mistress, Chariot, StudySmarterThe speaker personifies time, saying it chases him on a chariot, Pixabay

    Later in the poem, the speaker shifts personification away from a force being used against him and into a force he can control. He says,

    Thus, though we cannot make our sunStand still, yet we will make him run (45–46)

    The Sun here stands as a symbol of time, as people in the seventeenth century thought that time was controlled by the Sun. Instead of running from time, the speaker now believes he can make it do what he wants. If they cannot stop time altogether, they can at least gain control over it by doing what they want to do instead of what society wants them to. The power of time is thus taken from death and given to the speaker and his mistress.

    To His Coy Mistress Symbolism and Metaphor

    The speaker uses a combination of symbolism and metaphor to convince his lover to have sex with him and show her the consequences if they dont copulate. He says,

    And the last age should show your heart (18).

    In this line, “heart” serves as a symbol for the mistresss most intimate self. This means the identity and secrets shes kept hidden from the rest of the world, and it also means her sexuality. The speaker wants his mistress to give him every piece of her, both physical and emotional. He attempts to make her feel loved by telling her he wants the emotional pleasure of knowing her intimately along with the sexual pleasure.

    Symbolism: One person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

    Metaphor: The direct comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

    As the poem progresses, he uses symbolism and metaphor to tell her what will happen if they don't have sex. Essentially, they're going to die and everything they once cared about will be meaningless. He uses metaphor to compare empty, lifeless deserts to time:

    And yonder all before us lie

    Deserts of vast eternity (23–24).

    As opposed to biblical deserts, which were places for spiritual reflection and growth, the speaker's desserts are vast and empty, devoid of life and meaning. As time passes by and gives way to death, the speaker argues that there will be nothing left for them. This highlights the speakers nihilistic tendencies, gives way to his existential fears, and serves as one of his arguments for why they shouldnt wait to have sex.

    Likewise, dust and ash are used as symbols of inevitable death:

    And your quaint honour turn to dust,

    And into ashes all my lust (29–30).

    Death turns things that were once vibrant into dust and ash, depleting them of any life and returning them to a state devoid of any meaning or activity. In the lines above, the speaker says that death will reduce both her honor and his lust into nothing. If her honor, the thing that is keeping her from having sex with him, will eventually be meaningless, then, he argues, it shouldnt matter whether she loses her virginity or not. Likewise, he uses the symbols of ashes to threaten that his lust will soon burn out, and she will be left with nothing.


    The speaker uses simile to demonstrate exactly what he wants from his mistress. He says,

    Now therefore, while the youthful hue

    Sits on thy skin like morning dew,...Now let us sport us while we may,And now, like amorous birds of prey,Rather at once our time devour (33–34, 37–39).

    He wants to capitalize on their youth and passion for one another through sexual intimacy. He compares her youth to dew, which is beautiful and delicate in the morning but only lasts a brief period of time. Like dew, her youth and beauty will soon dry up as she ages. So, he argues, they should make the most of it now.

    The speaker also compares himself and his lover to birds of prey, which are known for their voracious appetite, power, and nobility. He says like birds of prey devour their food, so too should the lovers devour time. He wants to devour time by having sex, but the comparison to the predatory birds brings with it connotations of danger and violence.

    Simile: The comparison of two unlike things using like/as.

    To His Coy Mistress, Bird and prey, StudySmarterThe speaker says he wants to devour time with his mistress like birds of prey, Pixabay

    What do you make of this? Do you think that all he wants is to have sex with her? Or do you think he does want an emotional relationship with her, too? Do you find this poem misogynistic in some way? Do you think the speaker is coming off a bit creepy and predatory?


    The speaker works hard to convince his mistress to get sexual with him, but alliteration works harder by setting the mood of the poem. Alliteration creates a romantic, yearning, wistful feeling at the beginning of the poem. The repetition of both the “W” and “L” sounds in the first four lines creates an intense longing:

    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 (1–4).

    "W" is often associated with the whooshing sound of water in a river or wind through trees. The effect here introduces a romantic, pastoral image full of peace and free of urgency. The repetition of “L” creates the longing feeling with its relationship to soft, sensual words like love and lust. The alliteration in the first section of the poem creates a romantic, yearning tone.

    However, the entire mood of the poem shifts in line 21, and alliteration changes along with it. The repetition of the powerful “B” sound in “But at my back” (21) marks the forceful switch from peaceful to urgent. "B" is a plosive sound created with a sudden release of air. The repetition of the two “B” sounds back to back heightens the urgency in the poem and completely destroys the peaceful tone of the first section.

    Alliteration: The repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words.

    Alliteration is one of the reasons that poetry is meant to be read aloud! When the reader takes the time to speak the words and phrases out loud, alliteration adds to the nuance of the text. Notice how the tone shifts slightly depending on which sound the speaker repeats in alliteration. Do you notice a difference between the “W,” “L,” and “B” sounds when you read the text aloud?

    Assonance and Consonance

    Assonance and consonance control the rhythm of the poem along with alliteration and end rhyme. Consider the assonance in line 9: "And you should, if you please, refuse." The repetition of the hard "U" creates an inherent rhythm that makes the line memorable. It also stands out as the only line in which the speaker gives his mistress any agency in making the choice whether or not to have sex with him.

    Consonance also makes certain lines stand out to the reader. Consider the repetition of the “L” sound in “And while thy willing soul transpires” (35). This creates an extra layer of conflict between her youthful, willing soul and its inevitable loss as she ages. It also contributes to the rhythm, moving the poem along in a lyrical way that mirrors the pastoral setting.

    Assonance: The recurrence of similar vowel sounds.

    Consonance: The recurrence of similar consonant sounds.


    The speaker uses both geographical and Biblical allusions to explain how deeply he would love his mistress if he had time. He says,

    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 (5–10).

    The Ganges River, which flows through India, is considered holy and sacred by many groups of people around the world. In Marvells time, it was known for its purity. The Humber is a tidal estuary on the coast of Northern England. He says that he would “complain” as they are thousands of miles apart, but he would still be faithful to her.

    In addition to spanning physical distance, the speaker states that their love would span throughout time. "Before the flood" is an allusion to the Biblical flood that caused Noah to build an ark, showcasing how far back his love would go if it could. And their love would stretch to the future, with the conversion of the Jews to Christianity (which, as we know 350 years in the future, still has not happened). The use of allusion depicts how deeply he would love his mistress if he could.

    Allusion: A figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic.

    Do you really think the speaker would deeply love his mistress? Or is he just using empty words and tactics to get her to sleep with him?


    Hyperbole builds off of allusion to extend the depths of the speakers love. He says,

    My vegetable love should growVaster than empires and more slow;An hundred years should go to praiseThine 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 (11–18).

    The speaker says that if he had eternity, he would dedicate an age to admiring every part of his mistress. So he's either really committed or he's working really hard to get her to believe that he is. Either way, hyperbole speaks to his supposed commitment. "Vegetable love" is one of the most famous phrases in this poem, specifically because it's such an odd metaphor. The speaker says that his love will grow like a vegetable, organically and naturally but also slowly and firmly rooted. Certain vegetables are also a phallic symbol, so some critics have suggested this is yet another innuendo for what he really wants from his mistress.

    Hyperbole: An extreme exaggeration not meant to be taken literally

    The speaker compares his love to a slow growing vegetable, To His Coy Mistress, StudySmarterThe speaker compares his love to a slow-growing vegetable, Pixabay

    Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

    Enjambment and end-stopped lines equally share control over the poem. Neither one overpowers the other, which reflects the tug of war for power that the speaker feels against time. End-stopped lines slow down the pace of the poem, while enjambment speeds up the pace. Consider this use of end stops in the first section:

    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. (14–20).

    Notice how each line ends in very purposeful punctuation. This specific excerpt is taken from the first section when the speaker says that he wishes he had all the time in the world to love his mistress. The end stops slow the pace of the poem in this section and reflects the easy pace of life he wished they had.

    Although end stops dominate the first section of the poem, enjambment takes control in the next section and speeds the poem up again. Enjambment, the continuation of a thought after a line break, flows between thoughts, keeping readers rushing forward through the poem. Consider:

    Nor, in thy marble vault, shall soundMy echoing song; then worms shall tryThat long-preserved virginity, (26–28).

    Enjambment bleeds the image of the tomb into worms into virginity to create a disturbing visual of worms taking a dead womans virginity. Enjambment throws all of these ideas at the reader at once, rushing the poem along to create a feeling of anxiety.

    Enjambment: The continuation of a sentence after the line breaks

    End stopped: A pause at the end of a line of poetry, using punctuation.


    Juxtaposition is presented not in one specific line of text, but in the entirety of the speaker's argument throughout the various sections. The focus of the poem is on an informal and (in the seventeenth century) irreverent topic: premarital sex. But while the speaker is trying to convince his mistress to do something taboo that is not a matter of life and death, he dips into a serious, existential examination of his own mortality. The poem is subtly humorous as the entire thing is based on begging a modest woman to have sex. But that humor is set at extreme odds with the overarching theme of death and decay and loss of youth.

    “To His Coy Mistress” Themes

    Here are some of the main themes of the poem. Can you think of others?

    Life and Death

    The entire poem is centered on the theme of life and death. The speaker argues that death is inevitable and final, so the two young lovers might as well do whatever they want while they're young enough to enjoy life. This is a carpe diem style poem, which means "seize the day" in Latin. Carpe diem is used to tell someone to make the most of the time they have without worrying about the future. The speaker assumes this mentality and says,

    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 (21–32).

    Whether he is actually worried about his own mortality or just using it to get his mistress in bed, the speaker argues that the two of them need to live in the moment. He uses their inevitable deaths to prove that none of societys constructs –virginity, honor, etc – matter in death.

    Youth and Sexuality

    Of course, the entire reason the speaker brings up death is in order to convince his mistress to have sex with him. In Marvell's time, premarital sex was extremely disapproved of, and women who lost their virginity before marriage were thought to be ruined and impure. Men were not held to the same standards and could still be a perfectly suitable husband, but women lost all value if they were no longer virgins. The speaker argues that sexuality is supposed to be enjoyed while one is young, and virginity has no meaning in death. He uses the rather disgusting imagery of worms taking her virginity, saying:

    ...then worms shall try

    That long-preserved virginity (27–28).

    Instead of letting the worms have her virginity and honor, the speaker tells his mistress that giving it to him will actually help them control time and manipulate their mortality:

    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 (37–40).

    To His Coy Mistress - Key takeaways

    • “To His Coy Mistress” was written by English poet and politician Andrew Marvell. It was published in 1681.
    • Although Marvell wrote several love poems, he reportedly never married and his personal love life is relatively unknown.
    • “To His Coy Mistress” is a metaphysical poem that examines the complexities of life, specifically the idea of Carpe diem.
    • Its strict rhyme scheme and meter juxtapose the informal tone of the poem.
    • The themes revolve around life and death and youth and sexuality.
    To His Coy Mistress To His Coy Mistress
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    Frequently Asked Questions about To His Coy Mistress

    When was "To His Coy Mistress" written?

    It was most likely written during the 1960s, a time of political unrest and social transition after the English Civil War. 

    Who wrote "To His Coy Mistress"?     

    Poet and politician Andrew Marvell wrote "To His Coy Mistress."

    What is the poem "To His Coy Mistress" about? 

    It is a carpe diem style poem, which means "seize the day" in Latin. It is about youth and sexuality and the passage of time. 

    What type of poem is "To His Coy Mistress"?

    It is a metaphysical poem and a carpe diem style poem.

    What is the argument in "To His Coy Mistress"?

    The argument is that the speaker and his mistress will die soon anyway so they might as well make the most of the time they have now by giving in and enjoying their youth and sexuality. 

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