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.)
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”?