How to Seduce a Lady in Three Easy Steps

 

Andrew Marvel’s To His Coy Mistress has always been on my list of the ten best poems in the English language. Though written using the high poetic language of the 17th century, the structure of Coy Mistress rests on a decidedly non-poetic and practical argument, almost a syllogism, in which the man tries to talk his lady into bed. Its bare bones looks like this:

  • If we had time, I would spend it on a lengthy and elaborate courtship.  
  • But we don’t have time because life is short (he hears Time’s winged chariot at his back) and death brings an end to everything.
  • So let’s take our pleasures now while we’re still young and full of passion.

For all you young men out there in the throes of love or lust, here then is how they won fair lady’s heart (and body) back in the 17th century. You might want to take notes. (For the sake of inclusiveness, you young women can juggle the words a bit and it will work for you too.)

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, [would be] no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day. . . . 
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow. . . .
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew, 
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Marvell’s poem contains some of the most memorable lines in British literature: “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.” And of course, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.”
The poem also contains probably the most macabre and disturbing image in all of English literature when the poet shows his lady the dreadful consequences of persisting in refusing his advances: She will grow old, the poet says, and in death her virginity will be explored by worms: In the tomb, then, “Thy beauty shall no more be found;/Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound/My echoing song; then worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity.”
When I chose this poem to discuss on Ricochet, I was surprised to find that in the thirty years of teaching Coy Mistress, I had unconsciously memorized almost the entire poem. So I’ve walked around with the words and images of Marvel’s poem for the past fifty years. 

In fact, one of the nice things about being a reader of high literature is that your mind is filled with the best ideas and images that writers have come up with through the centuries. I cannot drive past a dark woods without those trees evoking the words of Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The words are not always inspirational. When I think on my own mortality, for instance, I’m reminded of Macbeth’s despair, “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A few years back, I was near Walden Pond, so I drove over and stood on the shore, thinking of Thoreau’s thoughts on man and nature. When I was a runner, the words of Isaiah used to come to my mind: “But those who hope in the Lord will. . . Soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not grow faint.” And who can forget Dylan Thomas’s cry to his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night”?

That sort of thing will not help you win any STEM awards, and you’re not likely to advance the material life of mankind, but it’s not a bad way of going through life on a personal level.
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There are 36 comments.

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  1. David Foster Member

    Modern equivalent (though less poetic) would be ‘hey, we’re all going to die in 12 years when the planet burns up, so why not?”

    Even better, the Cold War version: “We could get blown up by a Russian missile at any time?”

    • #1
    • May 14, 2019, at 7:40 AM PDT
    • 15 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    I was just talking about how it might be fun to take some modern lyric poem and take it apart, analyzing it. But Marvell is far to good for our era.

    • #2
    • May 14, 2019, at 7:52 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. She Thatcher
    She

    KentForrester: In fact, one of the nice things about being a reader of high literature is that your mind is filled with the best ideas and images that writers have come up with through the centuries.

    Amen

    KentForrester: That sort of thing will not help you win any STEM awards, and you’re not likely to advance the material life of mankind, but it’s not a bad way of going through life on a personal level.

    And Double Amen.

    Wonderful post. Wasn’t “Vegetable Love” a hit by The Captain and Tennille back in the mid 70s? Something like that, anyway.

    • #3
    • May 14, 2019, at 8:06 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    She (View Comment):
    Wonderful post. Wasn’t “Vegetable Love” a hit by The Captain and Tennille back in the mid 70s? Something like that, anyway.

    • #4
    • May 14, 2019, at 8:11 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    She (View Comment):

    Wonderful post. Wasn’t “Vegetable Love” a hit by The Captain and Tennille back in the mid 70s? Something like that, anyway.

    She, thanks. I think it was Muskrat Love. I always liked that duo.

    • #5
    • May 14, 2019, at 8:15 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Bob Thompson Member

    Arahant (View Comment):
    But Marvell is far to good for our era.

    Too good, yes. Men? and women? today do not even resemble those of those days.

    • #6
    • May 14, 2019, at 8:18 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. She Thatcher
    She

    Paddy Roberts was a South African entertainer (RAF pilot during the war, and commercial BOAC pilot following) who had a minor following in the UK during the 50s and 60s. He was insanely popular among British expats, and was one of my mother’s favorites. He couldn’t sing all that well, but had a quick wit and wrote clever songs, some with quite forward (for the times) lyrics. He didn’t like the way others rendered his songs, so he accompanied himself on the piano (was a fine pianist) and recorded them himself. I’d say this is his take on the subject of this thread:

    • #7
    • May 14, 2019, at 8:20 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Doctor Robert Member

    What a great poem.

     

    • #8
    • May 14, 2019, at 9:11 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. James Lileks Contributor

     “Quaint” had homophonic implications, so “Quaint honor” is a little bit more than a single entendre. More like 1 1/2 entendres.

    The CoC prohibits anything more.

    • #9
    • May 14, 2019, at 11:33 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    “Quaint” had homophonic implications, so “Quaint honor” is a little bit more than a single entendre. More like 1 1/2 entendres.

    The CoC prohibits anything more.

    James, why would he be trying to talk a lesbian into bed with him? Or do you mean a single tone (homophonic)? 

    What’s up?

    I think “quaint” means “old fashioned” or “overly discriminating” in this context.

    • #10
    • May 14, 2019, at 12:23 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. Aaron Miller Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Modern equivalent (though less poetic) would be ‘hey, we’re all going to die in 12 years when the planet burns up, so why not?”

    Even better, the Cold War version: “We could get blown up by a Russian missile at any time?”

    “Soon they will announce another Avengers movie. Quick, to the Batmobile’s back seat!”

    • #11
    • May 14, 2019, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    She (View Comment):

    KentForrester: In fact, one of the nice things about being a reader of high literature is that your mind is filled with the best ideas and images that writers have come up with through the centuries.

    Amen

    KentForrester: That sort of thing will not help you win any STEM awards, and you’re not likely to advance the material life of mankind, but it’s not a bad way of going through life on a personal level.

    And Double Amen.

    Wonderful post. Wasn’t “Vegetable Love” a hit by The Captain and Tennille back in the mid 70s? Something like that, anyway.

    Are you referring to the Nine Inch Nails song with the “I wanna [redact] you like a Muskrat” lyric? 

    • #12
    • May 15, 2019, at 6:40 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    “Quaint” had homophonic implications, so “Quaint honor” is a little bit more than a single entendre. More like 1 1/2 entendres.

    The CoC prohibits anything more.

    Now who’s coy? 

    • #13
    • May 15, 2019, at 6:43 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Doctor Robert Member

    TBA (View Comment):
    Are you referring to the Nine Inch Nails song with the “I wanna [redact] you like a Muskrat” lyric? 

    A lady friend once sent me a link to said song. Talk about a seductive poem…

     

    • #14
    • May 27, 2019, at 11:25 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Arahant Member

    It took a month to promote this?

    • #15
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:02 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    It took a month to promote this?

    I know. That’s weird. 

    • #16
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:04 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Caryn Member

    Thank you, Kent, for trying (with mixed success) to raise the mood around here. I’ve liked that poem since my first contact with it. There’s another from about the same, though (I think) published earlier, with much the same message. I think its age takes it beyond copyright protection, so I’ll paste it in right here. Note, at least Herrick talks of marriage!

    To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

    Robert Herrick – 1591-1674

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old Time is still a-flying;
    And this same flower that smiles today
    Tomorrow will be dying.

    The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he’s a-getting,
    The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he’s to setting.

    That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer;
    But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

    Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may, go marry;
    For having lost but once your prime,
    You may forever tarry.

    • #17
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:06 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    It took a month to promote this?

    I know. That’s weird.

    All depends on what they have in the queue. They must save the best stuff for Friday evenings and the weekends. 😉

    • #18
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:06 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Arahant Member

    Well, if we’re adding poems from near that time (or earlier):

    • #19
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:10 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Percival Thatcher

    It’s a keeper, though, since it isn’t topical.

    • #20
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:11 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Arahant Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    It’s a keeper, though, since it isn’t topical.

    Good point. Evergreen.

    • #21
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:14 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Caryn (View Comment):

    Thank you, Kent, for trying (with mixed success) to raise the mood around here. I’ve liked that poem since my first contact with it. There’s another from about the same, though (I think) published earlier, with much the same message. I think its age takes it beyond copyright protection, so I’ll paste it in right here. Note, at least Herrick talks of marriage!

    To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

    Caryn, I’ve taught that poem many times, and that line in which Herrick, in the middle of a traditional carpe diem poem, advises the girl to go marry, has always been Jarring to me. I’ve read that it was originally a typo, and that it should read “go merry.” That is, “go make merry.” That makes more sense, doesn’t it?

    • #22
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:16 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Arahant Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    I’ve read that it was originally a typo, and that it should read “go merry.” That is, “go make merry.” That makes more sense, doesn’t it?

    Or perhaps a pun on both?

    • #23
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    I’ve read that it was originally a typo, and that it should read “go merry.” That is, “go make merry.” That makes more sense, doesn’t it?

    Or perhaps a pun on both?

    Might be. Arahant, you missed your calling when you chose not to be a professor. You would have had a lot of fun. 

    • #24
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Arahant Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Might be. Arahant, you missed your calling when you chose not to be a professor. You would have had a lot of fun.

    In those days of long ago before the sun ignited
    I thought that math went way too slow, students unexcited.
    I turned my back on teaching things, serious pretensions,
    Turned instead to silly rhymes and other such dementions.

     

    • #25
    • June 14, 2019, at 5:30 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  26. GFHandle Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    I think “quaint” means “old fashioned” or “overly discriminating” in this context.

    That and “overly fastidious” is the surface meaning for sure. In 1961, John Van Doren mentioned to our class that it also had an obscene meaning. (Not the sort of thing an innocent like me would forget.) I don’t think he spelled it out, but we took him to mean the word that sounds like “quaint.” My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives no hint of this possibility. I don’t know where I could go to verify the Lileks/Van Doren hypothesis. I don’t even know how old the word it is supposed to sound like is. 

    (I hate that we no longer can refer to certain words as words. The first time I heard the expression “The N word” was when Johnny Cochrane used it in the O.J. Simpson trial, trying to convince the jury OJ was being framed by racists who repeatedly used a word so bad it cannot even be referred to AS A WORD. A brilliant strategy, I thought, since many of us never get past the phase when words have magic power or realize they are merely sounds used to signal meanings. It worked and caught on.)

     

    • #26
    • June 14, 2019, at 7:15 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  27. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    GFHandle (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    I think “quaint” means “old fashioned” or “overly discriminating” in this context.

    That and “overly fastidious” is the surface meaning for sure. In 1961, John Van Doren mentioned to our class that it also had an obscene meaning. (Not the sort of thing an innocent like me would forget.) I don’t think he spelled it out, but we took him to mean the word that sounds like “quaint.” My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives no hint of this possibility. I don’t know where I could go to verify the Lileks/Van Doren hypothesis. I don’t even know how old the word it is supposed to sound like is.

    (I hate that we no longer can refer to certain words as words. The first time I heard the expression “The N word” was when Johnny Cochrane used it in the O.J. Simpson trial, trying to convince the jury OJ was being framed by racists who repeatedly used a word so bad it cannot even be referred to AS A WORD. A brilliant strategy, I thought, since many of us never get past the phase when words have magic power or realize they are merely sounds used to signal meanings. It worked and caught on.)

     

    Mr. Handle, I too doubt if Marvell had the C word in mind. “Fastidious” or “overly nice” works best in the poem.

    I agree with everything you wrote in your second paragraph. I’ve never cared for “fastidious” language myself and bristle a bit when I have to use it. 

    • #27
    • June 14, 2019, at 7:26 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  28. Arahant Member

    GFHandle (View Comment):
    I don’t even know how old the word it is supposed to sound like is. 

    Fourteenth Century.

    KentForrester: And your quaint honour turn to dust,

    Quaint actually comes from the Latin word for “to know.” It came into English in the Thirteenth Century meaning Skilled or Expert. It then picked up a meaning of “marked by skillful design,” which transmuted to “Marked by beauty or elegance.” Eventually, it wound up as “pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned.”

    • #28
    • June 14, 2019, at 7:47 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  29. Trink Coolidge

    Kent, Please list your other favorite poems. And I think I’m having dega vu all over again. Perhaps you did in the past. But my old brain is stuttering. Thank you :)

    • #29
    • June 15, 2019, at 7:14 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    GFHandle (View Comment):
    I don’t even know how old the word it is supposed to sound like is.

    Fourteenth Century.

    KentForrester: And your quaint honour turn to dust,

    Quaint actually comes from the Latin word for “to know.” It came into English in the Thirteenth Century meaning Skilled or Expert. It then picked up a meaning of “marked by skillful design,” which transmuted to “Marked by beauty or elegance.” Eventually, it wound up as “pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned.”

    Arahant, you’re such a pedant that you would have made a comfortable fit in a university, probably in the English department with me. Both of us like big words and unusual facts. I can totally see you in front of the classroom, your pigtail hanging down in back, a couple of leather patches on your elbows. 😃 

    • #30
    • June 15, 2019, at 7:34 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
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