The two poems, “To His Coy Mistress” and “The Flea” were both written with one thing in mind: seduction. The poems were later labelled as Metaphysical poems, which is a term used for poems that were written in a certain period, usually to seduce, and contained unusual metaphors. The 17th century was a highly religious period, as well as a time when the rich decided to travel around the earth discovering new and unseen land, which gave ground to myths and legends.
Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” uses a syllogistic argument as well as using the “carpe diem” theme. The thesis is the first section of the poem, in which Marvell drowns the woman in flattery, telling her all the time he would spend idolising her if only they had enough time. The second section of the poem sees Marvell reminding the lady that the time they have is too short to even considering doing all this, the antithesis. This leads to the conclusion that they must make love to one another now, as their time is too precious to waste. The syllogistic argument is similar to the theme of “carpe diem”. Marvell tells her all the things they could do, although they can’t as time casts it’s restraints over them, so they must “seize the day” and have sex there and then.Order now
Marvell introduces the poem with the rather controversial line, “Had we but world enough, and time,” which implies right from the start that all the things he is about to describe are unobtainable. He then describes how her “coyness” is a “crime”, with the word “crime” hopefully making the woman feel guilty for wishing to preserve her purity. Marvell then tells the woman they “would sit down, and think which way,
To walk”, implying that they would take their time and get to know each other before deciding what they wanted to do in the future. The next phrase, “and pass our long loves day” creates the image of an idealistic fairytale romance, as the words nearly force you to prolong them as you say them. This makes the phrase sound more seductive and rhythmic. Marvell then talks to the woman about how she would be able to travel to the
“Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find”. India was an exotic place that not many people had travelled to or even knew much about in the 17th century; and ruby’s were not only expensive, highly glamorous jewels, but they were also believed to preserve your virginity. Marvell explains how he
“by the tide
Of Humber would complain.”
meaning that he would wait at home, longing to see the woman, as she went off exploring theses tropical places. Marvell then makes the statement:
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse,
Till the conversion of the Jews.” By “the flood”, Marvell is referring Noah’s flood in the Bible. He proclaims he would love her before this, until “the conversion of the Jews” which would probably never happen as the Jewish community is highly religious. This is an elaborate way of saying that Marvell would love this woman forever, had he the chance. Marvell then moves onto more sexual imagery, but he does this subtly.
“My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.” could be received by the woman in two ways. It could be interpreted as how his love for the woman would grow slowly, as does a vegetable or an empire. Another interpretation would be that his “vegetable love” growing is a reference to his penile erection, with him, rather hyperbolically, telling the woman how large his penis is with the mention of it being “vast empires”. Marvell then tells the woman:
“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.” Marvell is again using hyperbole but this time to give imagery of a much more romantic and less obscene manner. He describes how he would take his time just marvelling at this woman’s beauty, again immersing her in flattery. He goes on to write
“And the last age shall show your heart:” which is telling her that she not only looks beautiful, but her personality is just as marvellous and important. Marvell draws the first stanza to a close writing
“For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.” meaning that she deserves all of the above, and he would in no way compromise if he had the time.
Marvell begins his antithesis with the word “But”, which is instantly a sign of the negativity to come. This section of the poem sees Marvell almost scaring the woman into sleeping with him. He uses various morbid pieces of imagery, as well as playing on his mistress’ guilt. Marvell opens with
“But at my back I always here
Time’s wingï¿½d chariot hurrying near:” In Greek mythology, it was believed that Gods would ride across the sky, drawing behind them the day or the night. Marvell is referring to how they were drawing closer, and how their time is running out, scaring the woman into having sex. Marvell then takes a dramatic shift in what he’s describing. The lines
“And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.” Here Marvell is implying that only death is to come. The line “Deserts of vast eternity” symbolising death, and how there is only arid, lifeless spaces of nothingness waiting for them. Marvell then goes on to how “Thy beauty shall no more be found”, meaning that when she is dead, she will lose her current state of physical allure.
“Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song:” These two lines again refer to death, and the fact that when she is dead, she shall not be able to hear Marvell’s “echoing song”. Marvell then starts to use extremely vulgar imagery:
“then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity:” He tells the woman that worms will crawl through the woman’s body, foremost her vagina, and take her virginity whilst she is dead and buried. Marvell then begins to mock his mistress, saying:
“And your quaint honour turned to dust;
And into ashes all my lust.” Marvell says that preserving her virginity is “quaint” and it will mean nothing once she is deceased, making the woman feel old-fashioned and slightly asinine. The words “ashes” and “dust” are small references to funerals, again tying in with the theme of death. Marvell then concludes the antithesis, writing how the dead no longer have sex:
“The grave’s a fine and private place,
But non, I think, do there embrace.”
Finally, Marvell ends his syllogistic argument with his conclusion: that they must have sex now. He begins with a much lighter tone compared to the previous two stanzas:
“Now, therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires” Marvell starts again with the sexual imagery, saying how she is “willing” to have sex with him, with the words “morning dew”, “youthful hue”, “willing soul” and “instant fires” suggest that Marvell’s mistress is young and passionate. Marvell then starts to describe what their sex would be like, if they were to have it. “Now let us sport us while we may;” has been used my Marvell as a metaphor for how their sex will be athletic, with single syllable words making it sound more aggressive. “And now, like amorous birds of prey,” is a line that Marvell uses to describe their sex as wild, as well as passionate.
“Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.” In these two lines, Marvell makes a brief reference to time, and how he wants to control it. Marvell then continues with the sexual metaphors:
“Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Through the iron gates of life” Presumably “strength” would be a reference to a penis, whilst “sweetness” would be reference to a vagina, and the “roll”(ing) up would be a metaphor for sex. The third line makes reference to powerful and violent sex, with the “iron gates of life” signifying a woman’s maidenhead. Marvell end the poem very philosophically, in contrast to the sexual imagery.
“Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Marvel is basically saying that he cannot stop time, but they can control and enjoy what they do within it. Marvell’s poem uses many unusual metaphors, and was very “new-age” for it’s time, as purity was still very treasured. If they had all the time in the world, they would idolise each other for an eternity before even considering sex, but that’s not the reality, as they will only end up dead; thus it’s only logical to “carpe diem”, and have sex now whilst they can.
Donne also uses a syllogistic argument to seduce a woman, except his is an intellectual argument that is based on a shaky concept as it’s foundation. The poem appears to be an ongoing adaptation of the argument, as he reacts to a woman’s responses to demonstrate that she is denying him her virginity rather imprudently. Writing about a flea at that period in time was popular for facetious poems due to an event in which a flea happened to land upon a woman’s breast in a literary salon. The poets within the salon were amazed at the creature’s audacity, and were inspired to write poetry about it, and so it became a fashionable thing to do in the 16th century.
Donne begins the poem rather abruptly and without preamble, and already diminishes her coyness:
“Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;” Donne then immediately moves onto imagery of a sexual nature:
“Mee it suck’d first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingle bee;” Donne uses two double entendres, first is the reference to a sexual act with mention of the word “suck’d”. The 17th century idea was of sex as a mingling of the blood, the phrase “our two bloods mingled bee” would be considered to also symbolise sex. This also proposed the argument that, metaphorically speaking, these people had already had sex inside the flea, so why won’t she let the man have sex now? Donne again pokes fun at her virginity, saying that because she has already been violated by, and her virginity lost to, the flea without committing a sin or feeling shame. Donne ends the first stanza with a lot subliminal images of sexual imagery:
“Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood mode of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.” The phrase “pamper’d swells one blood” suggests either an erection or possibly pregnancy, with again suggestion of the mingling of blood which may also imply that they are married inside the flea, as a marriage ceremony states “man and woman shall be one flesh”, and one may argue that being one blood is practically the same as being one flesh. The last 3 lines also end in a rhyming triplet which summarises the first part of Donne’s argument.
The second part of Donne’s poem is a lot more religious than the first. There has been a turn of events in the time since the last stanza, and the woman has decided to try to squash the flea. Donne, being such an opportunist, uses this new situation to convince the woman to sleep with him through guilt and pity. Donne starts again, abruptly:
“Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare” Donne implies that by killing the flea, she would be killing all 3 of them, as the flea has blood from him and her too. Donne’s argument becomes more dramatic and religious in the next few lines, and starts to become more explicit:
“Where wee almost, nay more than maryed are:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed and marriage temple is” Donne starts to refer to the flea as a place of religious significance, calling it a “marriage temple”. Donne then writes about the fact that even if their parents disapprove of them having sex, they could do nothing about this, because they’ve already had sex inside the flea as was intended by fate. Donne describes the flea as “living walls of Jet”, Jet being a black, semi-precious stone; this implies that possibly the flea is not semi-precious too. Donne again ends the stanza with a rhyming triplet:
“Though use make thee apt to kill mee,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege,three sinnes in killing three.” It was once believed that denial and refusal of a man’s desires could kill him. Donne uses this to his advantage, telling the woman that denying him sex is killing him. He then goes on to say that killing the flea would also be killing herself which was extremely frowned upon in the 17th century. Donne ends the section with a very powerful statement using hyperbole, “three sinnes in killing three.” This is a reference to the holy trinity, and killing the holy trinity (which itself is more of a metaphor than something physical) would be absolute blasphemy, a “sacrilege” even. This stanza again ends in a rhyming triplet which seems to have become a theme in the poem.
The third section is a reaction to the woman who has now killed the flea. He opens with curses aimed at the woman:
“Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?” Donne is referring to Christ and his crusifiction with the words “naile” and “blood of innocence”, and it’s also notable the “purple” is a royal colour. Donne carries on writing about how the flea was innocent, and then prompts the woman with a question:
“Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?” Donne is trying to make the woman say that she’s guilty. Donne then writes:
“Yet thou triumph’st, and saist thou
Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now,” He is trying now to use her reply to try and finish off his argument by turning it on herself. Donne continues:
“‘Tis true, then learne how false fears bee;
Just so much honour, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee.” In these concluding lines, Donne uses the fact that the woman has told him that nothing has happened even though she has killed the holy trinity to plead his case for sex. He uses this factor to say that if killing the flea is OK, then it is OK to have sex, as the flea is insignificant, and so is your virginity.
The two poems contain various similarities and differences. The most visible similarity is their common goal: to seduce a woman into bed. The way they go about this seduction is very different. Marvell decides to use a carefully structured, syllogistic argument in order to woe his lady; whereas Donne’s poem seems very opportunistic, his poem a series of replies to events that are unfolding in front of him.
There are also similarities and differences in the imagery used by the poets. Both poems use sexual and religious imagery, something typical of Metaphysical poems. One may argue that Marvell makes less use of hyperbole, focussing strongly on elements of death, time and general romanticism. Donne focuses heavily on theming his imagery around religion and sex, seeming very antagonistic.
The poems both use very unusual metaphors throughout, as well as some hyperbole. As I had previously mentioned, Marvell’s use of hyperbole is far less prominent than Donne’s. The metaphors and hyperboles are largely focussed around sex which is again a common feature of Metaphysical poetry.
The structure of the poems is, on the surface, very similar. They both contain 3 parts, separated into stanza’s. This, however, is where the similarities end. Marvell’s poem very gradually builds up, starting with very romantic imagery and ending in very sexual imagery. Contrarily, Donne delves straight in, with use of very sexual themes as well as very religious ones.
This leads well onto my final point, Marvell is far more romantic than Donne. He uses for more romantic themes, as well as less aggressive imagery. Donne tries to win his woman with hyperbole, guilt and intelligence as opposed to flattery. Which of the two methods would have proved more successful is debatable, but both poets put forth very strong arguments to plead their case for sex. The poems, successful in their aims or not, were before their time and very forward thinking. They contributed to the very “sexually open” society we live in today, exposing 17th century women to the true power of seductive poetry.