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The Great Unknown

Symbol Analysis

As we discuss in "In A Nutshell," Andrew Marvell is considered a Metaphysical Poet, which means, in part, that he was concerned with the mysteries of life, death, and the universe. The striking images of the unknown as imagined by the speaker might not give us any answers, but they entertain us and give us food for thought as we ponder all these deep things.

  • Lines 21-22: What kind of chariot does time drive? The chariot is a nice example of metonymy. The chariot becomes a stand in for time. When the speaker hears the chariot behind him (which is all the time), he associates it with time. The imagery of wings helps us see the chariot, and even hear the sound it makes. This metonymical link between time and the chariot also personifies the abstract concept of time, by implying that time is behind the wheel of the chariot. Either that, or time’s chauffer is behind the wheel – but, if time has a driver, that’s still personification.
  • Lines 27-30. Hyperbole turns nasty in this section. He makes the ridiculous suggestion that, if she dies a virgin, worms will have sex with her dead body. Ew. This vision of the unknown employs simple, but effective visual imagery.
  • Lines 36-38. It’s possible that sex is unknown to the speaker, and he implies that it’s unknown to the mistress. His vision of sex, like most of what he envisions, is full of hyperbole. In one of the poem’s few similes, he likens their impending (so he hopes) sexual union to that of "birds of prey." While birds mating is innocent enough, the word "prey" sets us up for the weird violence that the speaker imagines taking place before they actually have sex.
  • Line 39-40: His idea of foreplay is eating time. Conceiving time as something that can be devoured makes our head spin. In this case, time becomes a symbol for everything that the speaker thinks traps him. Ironically, the speaker wants to be nourished by the very thing that he wants to be rid of. The irony suggests a paradox. The speaker wants to be rid of time, but needs time in order to enjoy life.

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