In addition to writing about love, I spend a lot of time talking about the literature of love, and of sex. I teach British Literature as a professor at a community college in Texas, and I get to teach high school students all about British Literature from 1000 to 1800. I say “get to” because it is my privilege. I feel very fortunate on most days to be the one who gets to introduce them to the complex wonders of Chaucer, Donne, Marvelle and yes, Shakespeare. I love showing them why I enjoy sonnets and love extended metaphors and all the other ways that poetry challenges us, and makes us respond to the words on the page. And sometimes they point out things that make me pause and re-evaluate my own responses and then I have a deeper appreciation for the poems we’ve been reading for the past 500 years. Today, I got to experience that, and it was a great way to finish the day.
Today we discussed two of the better known “Carpe Diem” poems, Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. (The latter happens to be one of my all time favorite poems and the link I’ve included has a great version of it read by someone who sounds awfully like Patrick Stewart.)
As we were reading the poem I pointed out why he praises various body parts of his lady, and what he is trying to do by focusing on her eyes, forehead and heart, and also why he is trying to convince her that if they had “but world enough and time” then he would be committed to loving her “ten years before the flood”.
One of my students mentioned that parts of the poem are really weird, and that the idea of worms trying her “long preserved virginity” was a really gross image. When she said this I agreed, and I also pointed out that he compares them to “amorous birds of prey” and suggests that they “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife,” and that these are not usually images or birds we associate with love. When we think of birds and love we think of songbirds, or doves or lovebirds. We rarely think of falcons and hawks.
But, I went on to say, this is one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem. Andrew Marvell contrasts these gruesome or unpleasant images with some astoundingly beautiful ones. He says to his mistress that “my vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires, and more slow” which brings to mind green growing life, and vines curling outwards across the land. I love the idea of vegetable love. It seems so precious and earthy, and yet it brings forth life and nourishes us. Or, if you aren’t a fan of vegetable love, you might prefer, “the youthful hue / sits on thy skin like morning dew”. I would swoon if someone said that to me. But, shortly after that he’s talking about death and ashes.
And for me, the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly is what makes this poem startlingly great. It’s like life, in that beautiful things are set right next to ugly ones. Amazingly beautiful flowers grow out of mud, and lovely, wonderful things are right next to gruesome, awful ones. This poem sees the reality and the beauty and isn’t trying to hide one with the other. And that makes the beautiful things all the more marvelous (get it? Marvell-ous?) and the ugly things take on their own sort of loveliness.
So many of the poems from this era try to disguise their intentions with flowery, lovely language, or complex rhymes so that we don’t notice the truth. Or, we might notice it but we see it as insincere. Marvell might be insincere in his commitment to this woman, but he’s honest about it. He’s saying if we had time, I’d make you all sorts of flowery speeches, but we don’t. We’re going to die and it will be awful. Let’s enjoy things now while we can, and even if we can’t stop time, we will give it a run for its money.
That right there is how I finished my class. *Mic drop*. Isaacks Out.