The esteemed poet Andrew Marvell recently wormed his way into a glamour mag article about Tinder. Would he have found himself more bemused or flattered, I wonder?
What made it particularly fun was the ironic, even sceptical way it was spread to the masses via social media. He’s more likely to have approved of that!
I don’t deny – it’s quite easy to roll one’s eyes at such frivolous use of canonical poetry and think of any snobbish reason to refute it.
But in this case, I think the anachronism is quite fun and has some sort of insight to bear – even if not the one its attributor originally intended.
Just a ‘carpe diem’ poem?
First of all, let’s dispel a few common misconceptions.
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a poem about failure, a fairly common motif throughout Marvell’s work. We encounter a frustrated speaker making a witty and clever but ultimately ham-fisted case.
Inviting his addressee to ‘tear pleasures with rough strife’ is not a particularly smart method of seduction, and the apocalyptic consequences he paints – of the worms having their fill in the coffin – are not so far away from saying (in modern dictum) “otherwise, rot in hell”.
[Incidentally, if anyone’s had success with that as a technique of persuasion, please do share the details!]
So gauche is this as an approach that I’ve never been entirely sure whether this is done out of genuine ignorance – i.e. the awkward teenager with no idea of charm – or whether it is a deliberate ploy.
We see in ‘The Definition of Love’ how Marvell recalibrates John Donne for his own purposes of failure. Where Donne envisages a circle as a reassuring show of togetherness, Marvell imagines lovers as curved lines, almost destined to cross unless perfectly parallel – which, sadly, is the condition he faces.
Perhaps ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a similar dismantling of Donne’s less forceful ‘The Flea’, with failure in mind from the outset.
If Marvell’s poem is a voice of experience, we might wonder precisely what experience it represents. A man scorned? Embittered? Overlooked? Donne, who married in his late twenties, may have just had it all too easy.
Not your average ladies’ man
Drawing biography into things is a risky business, I know. But if you’re going to drag Marvell’s poetry into this kind of cultural context, it’s worth considering what we know, which could be a world away from the impression we take from this poem.
There are very few signs of relationships throughout Marvell’s lifetime, aside from a possible marriage in his later life (which may have been an act of convenience). Moreover, sexuality is explored in diverse ways throughout his verse, from homoeroticism to a variety of paraphilia.
There’s even an argument to make that the poem ‘Upon a Eunuch’ is partly self-referential. An accident, perhaps, or a defect at the very core of one’s masculinity? We cannot know for sure.
He clearly struggled with the bawdy excesses of Restoration culture, even as it crossed his professional life as a politician. He disliked violence, particularly as it associated with religion, and spent a lot of creative energy examining the liberties and constraints of seclusion.
Ultimately, using ‘To His Coy Mistress’ to paint Marvell as a satyr or a pursuer of cheap thrills just won’t do.
Not Tinder, but something ‘quieter’
All this doesn’t mean that you don’t have needs, or that you don’t feel the burn of rejection, the pangs of loneliness, or the shame at being overlooked.
If you’re looking for a reason why Marvell would write a poem like ‘The Garden’ that seeks to remove women and overtly sexualise the bond with nature, that’s one possible explanation.
You might try and persuade yourself you don’t have needs, or that your needs can somehow be met in other ways.
I don’t mean to enter the mire of psychoanalysis, but since we’re playing ‘what if’ (as I take liberty to do so often), if Marvell were a Tinder user, I think he’d be an unsuccessful one. Unpopular, overlooked. Swipe left, blah blah…
It’s also too ostentatious for such a private character. Lest we forget, Mary Palmer, the woman who claimed after Marvell’s death to have been married to him for over a decade, said his fierce devotion to privacy and his insistence upon it had helped to safeguard their secret.
But I could definitely see him as an internet dater of a sort. Somewhere more obscure, perhaps, where he could sit undetected – outside the view of his enemies and acquaintances – and where he felt he could play to his strengths, as a man of many talents and a master of the written word.
Even so, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ could just as easily emerge in frustration at this failing too.
If you don’t have the gift of confidence or the fortune to be what somebody else happens to want, there are no skills that can make up for that.
Take it from one who knows.