In Europe, the seventeenth century was a time that was called a part of the Renaissance (meaning rebirth), an era that was so-called, because it was a time in which learning and development in every sphere of life occurred. This was prompted in part by the general reawakening to the idea that since life is temporary, one should make the most of one’s life.
This is why the carpe diem (‘seize the day’ in Latin) theme frequently occurs in the literature of the seventeenth century. This theme is of central importance in Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ as well as in Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, and other than this theme, both poems share a number of similarities. However, there are also striking differences, which contribute to the individual understanding of each poem.
Carpe diem referred to all worldly pleasures, but these two poems are similar in the way they approach this theme. Although ‘seize the day’ could mean all worldly pleasures, both of these poems emphasize sexual pleasure. Thus in Marvell’s poem, the speaker addresses his “coy” mistress and tells her than in death, her “long preserved virginity” (Marvell line 28) will “turn to dust” (29). Similarly, Herrick’s poem is addressed also to “the Virgins” who are told to “be not coy” (Herrick line 13).
Also, both poems emphasize the pleasure to be gotten in one’s youth, as Herrick’s poem talks of “Youth” (10), and Marvell’s poem mentions the “youthful hue” (33). This shows that the speaker in both poems is intent on persuading these women that sexual pleasures are of most importance and are best when enjoyed in youth, and thus to be coy is nothing but wasting time since life is short.
Some comparisons and images are also common to both poems. For example, the image of the sun is used in both poems that time is running out—in lines 5-8 in ‘To the Virgins’, and lines 45-46 in ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Time itself is also personified in both poems; in ‘To the Virgins’, time is referred to as “Old Time” (2), and ‘To His Coy Mistress’, the speaker tells his mistress of “Time’s wingéd chariot” (22), and urges her to make the most of time, rather than “languish in his slow-chapped power” (40).
Such use of personification makes it easier to visualize time as a person, under whose forces are all people. Also, both poems compare the ladies to flowers and thus, again, emphasize their transience. In Herrick’s poem, in the first stanza, there is an indirect comparison of the virgins to the flower that “Tomorrow will be dying” (4). This is evident inline 3, where the flower is not said to be blooming, but “smil[ing]” (2). In ‘To His Coy Mistress’, the “youthful hue/Sits on” the mistress “like morning dew” (33-34), as if she were a flower.
Apart from these similarities, the two poems also have significant differences, which contribute to the individual effectiveness of each. For example, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is addressed to a single lady, and is very descriptive about why and how the speaker and the mistress should enjoy sexual pleasure. This is because the poem aims to persuade the lady into immediate action.
On the other hand, ‘To the Virgins’, (as apparent by the title), addresses all ‘Virgins’ and seeks to persuade them to “go marry” (14) and not delay marriage for later (not an immediate action). Thus, the poem has a song-like quality, brought out by the four short stanzas, as opposed to the long three sections of Marvell’s poem.
This song-like quality in ‘To the Virgins’ is also brought about by the a,b, a,b rhyme scheme, and the completeness of the lines. On the other hand, in ‘To His Coy Mistress’, there is and a, a,b,b,c,c rhyme scheme, but the lines are run-on. This lends a conversational air to the poem, which is in keeping with the speaker’s addressing a single lady.
Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick both have used certain similar devices in their poems to bring out themes that are mutual to them. Yet, they have also employed devices which are peculiar to their own poems, and in doing so, have made them works of literature unique and complete in themselves, instead of stereotypical representations of a certain theme.
Herrick, Robert. “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.” 1648. Poems to Remember. Ed. E. F. Kingston. Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons. 1964. 22-23.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” 1681. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Jerome Be