Seizing Superficial Love

Ever since the beginning of time, love has played an enormous role among humans. Everyone feels a need to love and to be loved. Some attempt to fill this yearning with activities and possessions that will not satisfy – with activities in which they should not participate and possessions they should not own. In Andrew Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker encounters an emotion some would call love but fits better under the designation of lust for a woman. In contrast, the speaker of Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” urges virgins to marry, to make a lasting commitment in which love plays a vital role. Comparing these poems reveals differences between love and lust. Despite the contrasting depictions of love and lust, both poets portray the underlying theme of carpe diem – “seize the day” – using the sun to show the brevity of any single person’s time on earth, and utilizing societal standards to back up their arguments.

Though some may argue that the speaker in Marvell’s poem loves his mistress, he comes across as experiencing no emotion aside from lust. The speaker merely mentions the word “love” three times, all in the first stanza. Nowhere does the speaker connect this so-called love with his girlfriend’s personality traits, but always with her physical appearance. The speaker explains that if he had all the time in the world, he would adore for “an age at least” all the parts of her body and “the last age should show your heart” (17-18). The speaker’s overemphasis of his girlfriend’s body in place of concentration on her personality and heart – one’s more important traits – reveals his true motives and feelings.

Like Marvell’s poem, in which society’s standard of beauty looms greatly in the mind of the speaker and overwhelms his ability to see beyond physical characteristics, the speaker in Herrick’s poem also bases his reasoning on this societal norm. While the lustful lover of Marvell’s poem also bases his “love” on physical beauty, the speaker in Herrick’s poem neither condones nor condemns this societal standard, but simply acknowledges its existence. Because he realizes beauty plays a huge role in society’s standards for marriage, he urges the virgins he addresses to “go marry” (14). He explains that they “may for ever tarry” if they do not marry “when youth and blood are warmer” and they are in their “prime” (16,10,15). After all, who wants to marry some gnarly old woman?

The speaker in Herrick’s poem makes a reasonable request, urging virgins to marry. On the contrary, the infatuated boyfriend in Marvell’s poem makes an unreasonable request, even for today. In essence, the speaker of Marvell’s poem asks his girlfriend to lie with him. Even if God deemed fornication an acceptable practice, the speaker shows no true love for his girlfriend. The Bible explains, “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). The speaker shows absolutely no patience and looks out only for himself, clearly indicating he has no love, as 1 Corinthians describes it. Jesus Christ also says, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). If the speaker has such a difficult time controlling his emotions and has already committed adultery in his heart, what will keep him from controlling his emotions and sticking with this girl? What happens when he sees a girl who appears slightly more attractive than his girlfriend? He appears to think only of himself and looks upon his girlfriend as a mere object that can bring him pleasure, as he never mentions how the girl feels about the whole situation. Furthermore, what will he do if he gets the girl pregnant? One can question whether he possesses the ability and will to take on the responsibility associated with raising children in such a situation.

Despite the differences in the requested response to the speaker’s statements, – in Marvell’s poem, sex; in Herrick’s poem, marriage – both speakers attempt to depict the concept of carpe diem – “seize the day.” The speaker of Marvell’s poem explains in the first stanza that “had we but world enough and time, this coyness, lady were no crime” (1-2). In essence, the speaker explains that he would wait for all of time for his girlfriend. The speaker goes on to explain how time does not last forever and brings the situation back to reality. He reasons that both he and his girlfriend will eventually die, at which point her “quaint honor” will “turn to dust” and “into ashes all my lust” (29-30). The speaker shows the true concept of carpe diem when he encourages his girlfriend to lie with him “while the youthful hue sits on thy skin like morning dew,” in short, now (33-35). Finally, the infatuated lover refers to the sun, saying, “Though we cannot make our sun stand still … we will make him run” (45-46). He feels he possesses the ability to make the sun run by doing everything in his power while he has time, before his time runs short and his life ends.

Similarly, the speaker in Herrick’s poem uses the image of the sun to demonstrate the carpe diem theme. The speaker explains that the higher the sun rises, “sooner will his race be run, and nearer he’s to setting” (7-8). He urges the virgins to marry because time eventually runs out. He parallels the sun’s setting, which ends the day, to the end of life. If the virgins do not marry, in the speaker’s opinion, they will get old and no one will want to marry them.

Though at first glance Marvell’s and Herrick’s poems appear to have no relationship because of their diverse foci, the speakers of both poems utilize similar arguments in attempt to persuade the person or people to whom they speak. Specifically, both speakers convey the concept of carpe diem through the analogy of the sun. They address their situation in a skewed manner, though. While they have the opportunity to focus on true love, they fail to seize that opportunity. Instead, the speakers concentrate on society’s definition of love, namely, beauty, requesting a response based on the superficial, outward appearance of a woman.

Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation ( Used by permission.