To His Coy Mistress
Poetry is an art obsessed by sound, and there is a blurry line between songwriting and poetry. One big distinction is that songwriters often write the music that goes with their lyrics, while the "music" of a poem is contained within the lyrics, the arrangement of the words on the page. Some poems are more about sound than others. Walt Whitman’s "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is about how a man becomes a poet when he understands the songs of birds. "To His Coy Mistress" doesn’t go that far, but it still has a lot to do with sound.
You can sing poems, but they are more commonly read aloud. True to parodies and stereotypes of people reading poetry, you will run across people reading them in exaggeratedly super-serious tones, or making wild sounds, or anything silly you can imagine. If you choose to read poems out loud, we suggest reading poetry in a normal speaking voice, letting the lines guide you.
You’ve probably noticed that poets often throw traditional rules of grammar out the window, so don’t let it throw you if the grammar doesn’t seem to make sense. These are usually lines where the poet playing with language. If you read such lines over several times, the poet’s game will usually reveal itself.
Reading a poem out loud, or listening carefully to it in your head if you can’t read it aloud, as many times as you wish, is almost sure to reveal something meaningful about the poem. The revelation might be something ugly, or something beautiful, or even the belief that the poem makes no sense and has nothing to do with you. And, that’s OK, too.
While similar sounding and obviously all part of the same poem, we think that each of the poem’s three stanzas sound a little different from each other. The first stanza, where the speaker describes the idealized world in which the mistress’s "coyness" wouldn’t be a "crime," sounds both fast and slow. The sound of "vegetable love" slows us down. Try to say it fast. Veg-e-ta-ble-love. It’s not natural. "Gaze" is another word that doesn’t want to be said fast. The pace of words like "flood," "refuse," and "rate" speeds things up until we get to the "but" of the second stanza.
Here, something exciting happens. The speaker tells us that he hears something behind him, all the time – "Time’s winged chariot." When we say "time’s winged chariot," we hear a sound like paper, and wind, and wings beating. Scary. No wonder this guy is afraid of time.
He’s so afraid of the sound that it drives him to imagine himself and the mistress dead. The poem begins to sound less like a love poem and more like the work of a twisted creep-o. "Lust" and "dust" and "worms" – when taken together, these sound very formal, dark, and funereal. "Vast," "marble," and even "vault" throw in some freshness and elegance. Although "vault" refers to the grave, it still has a sharper feel to it than "worm." We hear old souls crying and the rustling of things trying to get out. More creepiness.
The third stanza is a big relief: it’s all power and light, and, er, violence. "Transpires," sounds soaring and fresh. "Sweetness" and "ball" sound playful and light. But, what of "prey," "devour," "tear," "rough," and "strife?" These words sound darker, with darker meanings, too, perhaps. The speaker wants to do violence to time, but it sounds a little like he wants to do violence to the speaker, too. Or, maybe he’s just overexcited.
He sounds calmer in the final couplet.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run. (46)
We think that this sounds bright, fast, slow, and elegant, like a promise that the speaker means to keep. What do you hear?