A brilliant poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” was written in the seventeenth century by Andrew Marvell. A friend and supporter of John Milton, Marvell was a deadly fencer and could speak a variety of foreign languages.
Some thought he might be a double agent.
His father was a Calvinist preacher, who drowned while crossing the Humber estuary. Accounts of this tragedy vary exceedingly, as it seems the reverend was accompanied by a young woman who was not his wife. In any case, after the untimely death of his father young Marvell abandoned his studies that were to prepare him for the ministry, and travelled for years on the Continent. Then he began to write poetry, becoming famous for both his brilliant satire and strong disgust of public corruption.
Today he is known for producing forty-six lines of “seductive words with the wit of a courtier and the passion of a lusty lover:”
Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, Lady, were no crime
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;
In the Renaissance, a man could happily love the woman over centuries, her delays no obstacles, if time and space allowed. The recipient of such fulsome complimenting is not to be insulted, but charmed by the wit that accompanies it.
Beginning with the stanza that was to later haunt T. S. Eliot, the tone of the poem turns ominous as the lover would hurry his beloved to capitulation. Just think, he writes, of what lies ahead, what will someday embrace you, yea, even down there:
But at my back I always hear/Time’s 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 to dust,/And into ashes all my lust
The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.
Better to seize the day and make love now — “sporting,” he implores, like “birds of prey:”
Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life.
Andrew Marvell died a poor man in 1678, essentially having lived a life of mystery. A few years after his death his poems were published by an equally mysterious Mary Palmer, a woman who claimed to have been his housekeeper–and his wife. Litigation filed in chancery court attempted to discover the true nature of her marriage but it seems no one could be found answering to her name.
Modern scholars believe Mary Palmer to be a fiction, created by either the publisher or the Marvell’s creditor, to collect on his estate.
Like history? Fall in love with it! Visit Angelyn at her blog, www.facebook.com/AngelynAuthor and Twitter @angelynschmid