Andrew Marvell: Minor Poet, Major Wit

One of my favorite poems of all time is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. The Best American Poetry blog had a great commentary on Marvell today.

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) has been called “the greatest minor poet in the English language.”

That’s a wonderful compliment. I would not mind being called a minor poet if I produced only one poem as worthy of multiple readings as his one crowning achievement. While Marvell’s opus is not as good as Robert Herrick’s “To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time” (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” will always be one of my favorite lines), it still is something that can teach us about writing poetry, even in the 21st century.

BAP captures the spirit of Coy Mistress beautifully with this terrific segment of its miniature oeuvre:

Never was a declaration of lust more logical. Carpe diem: We won’t be young forever, so let us make merry while we can. But Marvell develops the argument as one would a syllogism. He begins with wild hyperbole. If we had “world enough and time,” he would woo the maiden “ten years before the flood” and not mind if she should turn him down until the second coming.

The question then is, what can Marvell teach us about poetics? What does he have to say to the third millennium poet about craft? I’d say “To His Coy Mistress” can show us two things; two very simple things.

First, the couplet is still a valid poetic device today. It has not gone out of fashion and I don’t believe it ever will. You don’t have to be a New Formalist to appreciate a beautifully worded and musical couplet. The wonderful thing about a couplet is you can use it anywhere, even in free verse. I like the way that T.S. Eliot employed the couplet in “The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock”, another of my all-time favorites:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

Eliot’s poem is not free verse, but it isn’t written in a traditional form, either. The rhyme is odd and the meter is non-standard. But the verse is tight. The above couplet almost seems out of place, but it’s used twice in the poem. And it’s set apart by itself both times. Rare significance of such lines.

But Eliot is a digression. I mention Eliot only to point out that a couplet can break into a poem with a different pattern at any time. It need not, like “To His Coy Mistress”, be the only metrical pattern within a single poem.

Coy Mistress, unlike Prufrock, is written entirely in couplets. That was common for Marvell’s era. Nevertheless, the couplet is still alive and it can be used. Thanks to Andrew Marvell, this poetic device will likely never die.

Again, from BAP:

Possibly no one, not even Pope, wrote couplets more complex and witty than those of Andrew Marvell.

The second thing that Marvell can teach us is to write lines that do not have single meanings. For instance, these lines capture more than the obvious meaning in his poem about youthful lust:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

While Marvell is reminding us, and his coy mistress, that one cannot embrace in small plots in the afterlife, the underlying meaning that isn’t so obvious is that no one dares to desire that private place. The double meaning of the word “embrace” suggests that Marvell’s lust for his young mistress, coy though she may be, is the antithesis to a lust for death. It is, rather, a lust for life. The acquisition of sex, that wonderful proof that one is alive, is as much irreversible as death. After crossing over, one cannot go back to life any more than one can go back to virginity. Carpe diem.

To set us up for that double entendre, Andrew Marvell presents us with several preceding couplets and dangles them like a carrot before an ass. Here, let us see:

Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.

He is telling her, I paraphrase, “Do not go into your sepulcher with everything in tact because, my darling, there is no turning back.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we all must die, even our lust. When we go, we take it all with us – chastity and sinful opposite. Is there any question which one the minor poet prefers?

And so these two things: The value of a couplet and the skill in using double meanings to create multiple understandings; these two things Andrew Marvell teaches us. Do we employ the same poetic license? Must we write in the same rigid metrical style? No. But we can take the poetic devices of the past and make them our own. And, like Andrew Marvell, we should.

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