Sunday, September 16, 2012

To His Coy Mistress: Translation and Summary

"To His Coy Mistress"

Author: Andrew Marvell
Written: 1650 C.E. - 1652 C.E.
Published by: Marvell's housekeeper several years after his death.

Poem in a nutshell: "Life's too short; let's bang."

This poem is, perhaps, the most elaborate pick-up line ever created:

Original Poetic Text                                                                    Modern English Translation     

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.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd 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 honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave 's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

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
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
If land and time were no issue, this teasing, my Lady, would be of no consequence. We would sit down, relax, and think different ideas for dates. I would find you by the side of the Ganges' of India and romance you with the sweetest compliments. I would court you ten years before the Great Flood of Noah till the conversion of all Jews to Christianity. My love, like a vegetable garden, would grow to cover as much territory as the greatest empire—only more slowly. I would praise your eyes and forehead for one hundred years; two hundred years to admire each of your breasts; and, for thirty thousand years, I would worship and adore every other inch of your body. It would take at least one age for me to fully appreciate every feature that you possess, but, in the last age, I would look upon your heart. For, my Lady, you deserve nothing but the best and I would not have it any other way.

But, alas, we do not have all the time in the world. I can hear Time's chariot quickly drawing near and it brings old age and death with it. Your beauty will soon fade and you will die. Then, as you lay buried, only the worms will have a go at your virginity. Your chaste honor will be reduced to dust, and with your death shall be the death of my lust. The grave is great and everything but there is no romance and intimacy there.


So, let's have sex while we are still young, healthy, and attractive. We shouldn't be wasting time; we should be having raw, animalistic sex right now like those birds during the mating season. We can't make time stand still but we can make him run. Because you know what they say: “Time flies by when you're having fun.”

Poem Summary:

"To His Coy Mistress" is divided into three stanzas. The narrator is an anonymous man speaking to an anonymous woman.

In the first stanza, the narrator tells the mistress—not a woman on the side but simply a lady—that if they had had more time and space, her "coyness" or teasing/shyness wouldn't be an issue. He goes on to describe how much he would compliment and admire her if time permitted. He would focus on every inch of her body until he got to the heart—(a metaphor for her sex organ and love.)

In the second stanza, the narrator basically tells her: “But we don't have time and we're about to get old and die.” He says that life is short but death is eternal and time is running out. In addition, the speaker warns the woman that when she’s buried in her coffin, the worms will take her virginity if she doesn’t have sex with him before they die. And, if she refuses to sleep with him, all his sexual desire will burn up into ashes for all time.

In the third stanza the speaker begs the lady to have sex with him while they are still young. He points out a pair of birds mating and suggest that that is how their lovemaking should be—raw, passionate, and primal.

In the final couplet, the narrator says that they can’t make time stop, but they can exchange places with it. According to him, whenever have sex, they pursue time, instead of the other way around. Thus, sex makes the day more pleasurable and it makes the day go by much faster.

Please read 'To His Coy Mistress' - a Critical Analysis for a more in-depth summary. It is a very helpful tool for essays and such!

Please feel free to add your own interpretations and reviews of this poem in the comments section!


  1. This was the best interpretation I've seen all week. I have been searching for the best translation and you nipped in the bud thank you for taking the time to translate the poem instead of creating something that has nothing to do w/the poem. I have to explain the deception of this poem. I am not going to steal anything from this site I just needed to be explained. :) THX!

    1. Thank YOU for taking the time to leave such a kind comment. If you have any questions about the poem or if there is another poem with which you have difficulty understanding, let me know and I'll post about it. You can reach me at:

  2. Really interesting, great job!

    1. Thank you so much! Any ideas for which poems I could translate and summarize? I'm trying to use poems I think students have the most difficulty understanding.

    2. Subham MukhopadhyayMay 11, 2013 at 11:20 PM

      thank you ma'am for your concern. you may start the process by summarizing The Retreate (Vaughan),Vertue (Herbert) or Spenser's works.

    3. Thank you for actually replying to the prompt! I will most definitely have these translations and summaries posted within the following week!

  3. We can add here that the poet is actually mocking the mistress in the first half as both are fully aware of their mortality. The time the poet intends to spend in admiring the lady is highly exaggerated. The poet is in favour of physical union and in order to get the lady's approval he,at first mocks her beauty and then presents horrid images of the future to make the lady agree to his demands.

    1. This is true! Thank you for adding on to this complex poem :)

  4. Thank you so much! I have to analyse the poem but to this I needed to actually understand the poem. Thanks for your interpretation

    1. You are most welcome. If there are any poems that you would like to have translated, just post them in the comments.

  5. I had to write about the argument fallacies he writes within the poem and did not fully understand exactly what the poem was saying; but now I have a clear translation of it. Thank you so much!! Best one out!

  6. This was so helpful! Do you have any tips on how to write about reader response for poems, I'm having trouble with it for my exam notes? Thank you so much!

    1. Birdy, thanks for reviewing. I'm glad that I was able to help! Do you mind clarifying what you mean by reader response?

    2. If you have any suggestions on poems that should translate and analyze, please let me know, Birdy! I like to keep my content fresh!

  7. perfect translation. Needed this for my English project. The last part got quite awkward as I'll have to present this to my class, but otherwise made much more sense.

  8. Thank you so much...! i was worried about this poem, but now i can understand the whole poem.
    it's helpful.