In the 1650s, the British Empire has its teeth firmly sunk into the land of India. Andrew Marvell was active politician, and very close with Oliver Cromwell – don’t mention his name if you are ever in Ireland! Without a thorough study, we can’t say exactly what Marvell’s role in British colonialism and imperialism is, but he probably had some hand in it.
Luckily, we are here to explore the poem, and the poem doesn’t say much about this issue, although what it does say is characteristically ambiguous. Nevertheless, the brief mention takes on significance, as we gaze back in to the world’s past.
- Line 5: As noted, the poem briefly alludes to imperialism. The "Indian Ganges" and "rubies," when taken together in this context, can be symbols of imperialism, especially to us, today. When we consider that he generally insults the mistress in this section, the colonialists, by way of rubies and India, become a metaphor for the mistress. She steals rubies from the Indian people. She steals sex from the speaker, by not having it with him. If she doesn’t stop abusing her power, she will leave him in ruins.
- Line 12: Yep, it’s the word "empire" that interests us here. Building an empire ain’t easy, and it takes time (though not as long as growing vegetables, apparently). Some would say the same of relationships. Thus, colonialism also becomes a metaphor for relationships. The speaker accuses the mistress of thinking that sex and relationships are something big and serious, like ruling the world (the goal of building an empire), when, in fact – or so he says later on – such things are as common for people as for birds. He accuses her of hyperbole, which is ironic, considering all of his hyperbole throughout the poem. If Marvell has anxiety concerning imperialism (which is highly possible), he picks a pretty sly way to talk about it. Of course, this poem wasn’t published until after he was dead.