Study Guide

To His Coy Mistress Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Motion and Stillness

"To His Coy Mistress" is very concerned with the full range of motion, including stillness. The motion helps the poem pick up speed, and the stillness lets us catch our breath and reflect for moments before we rush on. This back and forth also helps the speaker make his point. His portrayal of stillness isn’t very positive, while his moments of action are full of excitement and challenge, suggesting that our speaker is all about action.

  • Lines 3-4: The speaker is big on hyperbole, and he uses it to suggest various speeds of motion and even stillness. "Picking rubies" implies a somewhat leisurely action (although actual ruby-picking is not leisurely at all).
  • Lines 8-10: The speaker’s declaration that (if he had time) he would love her "ten years before the flood" and "till the conversion of the Jews" combines hyperbole and allusion to create motion, in this case a sense of rapid movement through time. He also uses the grand, Biblical language ironically to poke fun at the mistress, whom he accuses of wanting something timeless (like eternal love), while saying in the same breath that he would give this to her, too, if he has time. This might create the motion of the mistress running away from the speaker.
  • Lines 18-19: The speaker uses "show your heart" as a metaphor for the mistress’s imagined agreement to finally have sex with him, implying faster action, and possibly a faster heartbeat. But, to emphasize the theme of mock leisure in this stanza, he slows things down by using the word "show," which rhymes with the "slow" of a previous line.
  • Line 20: He then extends the "heart" metaphor in line 20 by introducing the word rate – as in heart rate, another kind of motion. We can’t neglect the sense of "rate" which means "price" or "cost." With this pun, he slyly accuses her of wanting to sell her love for compliments – which brings us back to the running away thing.
  • Lines 45-46: The final lines of the poem employ a variety of fun techniques. The simple imagery of the word "sun," which makes us see yellow or orange or red as we read, combines with personification to deepen the image. We see a red-orange blur, wearing fiery running shoes. As you might suspect, Marvell’s ending flourish is even more sophisticated. The sun is also a metaphor for time. Time is an abstract concept (while the sun is an object we can see). By giving an abstract concept (time) human characteristics (running), the speaker personifies an abstraction, and we are left with an image of a bizarre red-orange clock wearing tennis shoes, trying to stay as far away from the speaker as possible.

The Imperial

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.

The Great Unknown

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.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...