I realized today that I have avoided putting older poems here–Marvell, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, for example. I’ve selected contemporary poems not only to avoid poems that everyone probably read in high school, but also because they seem more accessible, more alive.
But today I felt like reading Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” written in the 1650s. You’ll certainly recognize phrases from this poem, even if you didn’t read it in high school. They’ve made their way into daily speech. And though written in strict rhyme and meter, Marvell’s language and syntax (except for the occasional thou and thy and shouldst) seem almost as fresh as a contemporary poem.
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
xxx But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
xxx Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
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.
Three hundred and fifty years later, Dean Young in his poem “Sunflower,” turned that phrase, “time’s winged chariot,” into “time’s winged whatchamacallit,” a witty nod to Marvell, a reference to mortality, and a goofy spin on what’s become a literary cliché.