Sex and Sensibility — Renaissance Views on Virginity in Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

©October 2014 Mary Crockford

The “carpe diem” or “seize the day” ethic prevalent in 16th century poetry is demonstrated in two very different ways in Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” While both address the subject of time as fleeting, and the present needful of attention, Herrick approaches the subject as a matter of religious instruction. As Nesbitt states, the Renaissance cleric admonishes the youth of his time that “they will not always be young,” and urges them to marry while they are young, virtuous and thus attractive to a worthy spouse. He uses symbolism and personification to compare their innocence and youth to an unplucked rose, tender and only available in such a state once, and compares time to a swiftly flying bird:

“GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,/Old time is still a-flying:/And this same
flower that smiles to-day/To-morrow will be dying.” (1-4)

In keeping with his theme of youth as subservient to time and nature, Herrick employs wordplay and personification to invoke the sun as his revered Son of God, the “glorious lamp of heaven” (5) and a swiftly running racer (7). His poem ends as it begins, with a gentle sense of urgency that the virgins “be not coy” (13) by engaging in endless flirtation and indecision with regard to marriage. His suggestion is that in doing so, their pure status may work against them, leaving them unmatched and alone in old age, or squandering their virginity – their “rosebud” – foolishly:

“For having lost but once your prime/You may forever tarry.” (15-16)

Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” takes on a decidedly different tone than Herrick’s, one of overt sexual flirtation and physical urgency, and according to some analysts, political overtones. Where Herrick utilizes “internal rhyme” to undergird his poem’s structure and lend it a “light, lyrical nature” (Nieves par. 2), Marvell’s poem has an air of frustration that time and thus “his own future evades his control” (Anon. 8). He laments that time and life are short, civilizations come and go, and he urges the “coy” woman he is trying to seduce to give in to his advances. To Marvell, coyness is not the danger Herrick saw to the virgins’ marriage prospects, but an obstacle to sexual gratification:

“Had we but work enough and time,/This coyness, lady, were no crime.” (1-2)

Marvell engages vivid and sustained, hyperbolic symbols – known as Petrarchan conceits – to seduce his lover. He invokes the River Ganges, the site of the Taj Mahal, rubies, and even biblical cataclysms of The Great Flood and Armageddon to express the longevity of his desire for her. Yet he simultaneously pressures her to give in before the End-Time “conversion of the Jews,” lest his deliberately phallic “vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow” (11-12). This unique interplay of deluge and salvation, along with nature and empire imagery is illustrative of his own state of physical arousal, and his frustration for lack of release. His sense of physical urgency takes on a more impatient, even petulant tone, as he chides her for the waste her virginity will prove to be if they both die of old age without consummating:

“My echoing song; then worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity,/
And your quaint honour into dust,/And into ashes all my lust;” (29-30)

Where Herrick’s “To the Virgins” was written as a treatise on sexual virtue and the sanctity of marriage as the setting for losing one’s “maidenhead”, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” urges the giving over of sense and virtue to sexual desire. In the decision to cast off Herrick’s ethic of piety, at the end of his poem Marvell employs lustful, at times almost violent imagery to foreshadow the culmination of the sexual act. Where Herrick places sex within the bounds of the marriage relationship, taking place under the sovereign “sun” of God, Marvell’s speaker challenges the sun as an adversary, calling for “love as a type of mutiny” and “the subversive overthrow of time itself” (Anon. 4). His race is to chase down the sun, making time and the days at least cooperate with his intentions:

“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.” (41-46)

Both “To the Virgins” and “To His Coy Mistress” share structural and aesthetic characteristics consistent with the Petrarchan poetic tradition favored by Renaissance metaphysical poets, including meter and employment of conceits to emphasize their message on sex as both a human drive and expression of divine love. But as to chastity and timing of sexual expression, their purposes diverge. Herrick portrays sex as a gentle, holy proposition to be undertaken within the bounds of marriage, with reverence and respect for the passage of time. Marvell portrays sex as an act of physical pleasure for which marriage is unnecessary, and time an impediment, and he saw the use of religious and romantic language as an acceptable means to obtain it.

Works cited:
Herrick, Robert. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Poets.org. Academy of American
Poets, n.d. Web.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web.
Anonymous. “Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: A New Historicist Reading.”
Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: A New Historicist Reading (n.d.): n. pag.
Bedford St. Martin’s – Virtual Lit. Worcestshire Polytechnic Institute. May 2007. Web.
Nesbitt, Ted. “Poetry: Robert Herrick.” All Experts. About.com, 14 Apr. 2003. Web.
Nieves, Heriberto. “Analysis of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time””
Analysis of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” EBlogger, 18 July
2007. Web.

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