What exactly is a "coy mistress?" As we say over and over in this guide, here’s an opportunity to use your imagination. To provide fuel for our imaginations, let’s look at the meanings of the two words.
If the word "mistress" is in the news or the tabloids nowadays, it probably means one thing: a woman (married or not) having an affair with a married man. And, by "affair," in terms of the news, we mean sex.
Guess what, Shmoopsters! According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, it means the same thing in the 1650s, when Andrew Marvell probably writes the poem. It also means "a woman loved and courted by a man; a female sweetheart." There’s something for your inner paparazzi to chew on.
In Marvell’s time, "mistress" also means a woman who acts as a patron, or sponsor, for an artist or artists. This sense of the word allows us to imagine a new spin on things. If the speaker’s mistress is a patron, perhaps he’s trying to convince her to sponsor him for a new project, or, in short, to give him money. This interpretation complicates things. See, the poem speaks literally about sex – it references the mistress’s "long-preserved" virginity. So, if she is also the speaker’s patron, he either has or wants to have a sexual relationship with her, or he’s using sex as a metaphor for money. It might even be both. The tabloid journalist in you can get lots of mileage out of that one.
We haven’t given you all the possible meanings of "mistress" here. If you are ever stuck and can’t think of what to write your paper on, you can use this approach (looking up words in the dictionary) to build an argument that’s fun to make. But, before we move on to the word "coy," we should mention that "mistress" is the feminine form of the word "master." Almost all senses of the word "mistress" contain some element of "being in charge."
Now, for "coy." Most commonly, if a person is coy, he or she pretends to be shy, quiet, and reserved. (Early uses of the word imply actual shyness, quietness, and reserve.) The poem’s title then suggests then that the speaker’s mistress only pretends not to want to have sex with him. Either way, it explains why he says her "coyness" is a "crime." If she’s just toying with him, and he cares about her, then he has reason to be upset. On the other hand, if she really doesn’t want to, then he’s accusing her of a crime she hasn’t committed, and playing games with her head.
In addition to the common meaning of "coy," there is another meaning which can help us feel the beauty of the word. A good poet will search tirelessly until he or she finds just the right word. All the nuances of the word can be important. In Marvell’s time, the verb form of "coy" that is, "to coy" means "to stroke or caress." You can find this use in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
If we tie "mistress" and "coy" together, we can imagine a complicated relationship and complicated communications between our speaker and his mistress.