Ganges River in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. PHOTO CREDIT: Babasteve. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

“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.
Though by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find”1

In his twist on the typical romantic love poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell examines the role of time in romantic relationships. The poem begins as the speaker tells his lover that if life was never ending, there would be time for “coy” courting behavior in their relationship. As the speaker begins to list things that he and his beloved would finally be able to do in a timeless universe, he mentions that they would find rubies alongside the Ganges River. After his long explanation of what he would do to gain her love if only there were enough time, the speaker shifts his tone to become more persuasive in the second half of the poem. Instead of adoring her body or complimenting his mistress, the speaker instead reminds his lover that time is running out. As the poem goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the speaker is imploring his beloved to take advantage of her youth by giving up her virginity now, with him, while there is still time. Although the speaker claims that in a different, eternal world, he would woo the girl and win her love through romantic charm, in reality he implies that she should act on her youthful impulses because time will inevitably run out.

In the poem, the speaker mentions the Ganges River in India, as he says that if there were time to be “coy,” he would walk down the beaches of the Ganges searching for rubies. During the time this poem was written, the Ganges was pristine, and often the Ganges was used as a symbol for purity. In fact, the Hindus considered the Ganges their most sacred river due to the fact that it was named after the Hindu god Ganga, who represented that bathing in the river could cleanse people of their sins. The idea of the Ganges representing purity is ironic now that today, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In the context of the poem, Marvell wanted the speaker’s audience to recognize that although it would be nice to stroll along the beach of the Ganges and remain pure and faithful, life will end. The transience of life implies for the speaker that romantic activities like finding rubies alongside the Ganges will no longer be as important for the girl as losing her virginity to the speaker while they are still young. Although the Ganges stands for purity and commitment, the speaker of this poem is imploring for the opposite of that, instead only mentioning the Ganges when telling his beloved of what they will not do. Marvell’s poem can be interpreted as a parody on romantic relationships, or it could be an example of revolutionary carpe diem literature.

Read more about the Ganges River on Wikipedia. Read all of “To His Coy Mistress” on the Poetry Foundation website. Find Andrew Marvell’s poetry at a local library or on Amazon.

1Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 July 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173954>.

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