Magazine: Explicator, Fall, 1994

MARVELL'S TO HIS COY MISTRESS

The significance of a changed pronominal form in "To His Coy Mistress" appears to have been overlooked. The second stanza of Marvell's poem reads thus:

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, 25
Nor in thy marble vault shall sound 26
My echoing song;then worms shall try 27
That long-preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust, 29
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

In stanza one "thou" and "you" appear interchangeable: "Thou by the Indian Ganges side / Shouldst rubies find" and "An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze" but "I would / Love you ten years before the Flood, / And you should, if you please, refuse," "And the last age should show your heart," and "Lady, you deserve this state." "Thou" and "you" are both used as subjects of verbs and as modifiers of her parts. In stanza three "thou," in possessive case, occurs twice, "thy skin" and "thy willing soul," and "you" not at all.

Only in stanza two does the substitution of "your" for "thy" appear purposeful. "To His Coy Mistress" was published in 1681, three years after Marvell's death, at a time when "thou" was fast disappearing from Standard English. "The th-forms of the second person singular, which had become quite rare in upper-class speech by the sixteenth century, were completely lost in Standard English in the eighteenth . . . ," writes Thomas Pyles.[1] In 1681, however, these forms could still be understood as the address of a person to a social inferior, an adult to a child, and especially one lover to another. Thus, in the second stanza of Marvell's poem "Thy beauty" and even "thy marble vault" bespeak the lover's extreme emotional intimacy with his mistress (not, to be sure, physical intimacy, or there would be no poem); but "your quaint honor" two lines later, after the emphatic "then" of line 27, foretells the sudden loss of that intimacy as the lover contemplates the total anonymity his mistress will have achieved in death. The change from "thy" in line 25 and again in line 26 to "your" in line 29 makes the mistress impersonal without individual identity, unloved--as, the lover warns her, she is soon to be forever.

NOTE

1. The Origins and Development of the English Language, 2nd. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) 200.

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By MARK TAYLOR, Manhattan College

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Source: Explicator, Fall94, Vol. 53 Issue 1, p15, 2p.