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Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress” offer powerful examples of sensual, carpe diem Renaissance poetry. In both poems, the poet-speakers attempt to spur their beloveds into action through various compliments and rhythmic patterns that create a hurried tone. However, the speakers’ tactics diverge at this point. Marlowe’s poet-speaker focuses on an abstract pastoralist hypothetical peppered with innuendo in an attempt to gain his love’s affections. In contrast, Marvell’s speaker takes a much more explicit and logical approach as he bemoans the consequences of their delayed union and urges his lover to waste no time in consummating their relationship. Ultimately, both poet-speakers focus on carpe diem as a tool to persuade their perspective lovers.
Marlowe’s poet-speaker, the shepherd, sets the poem’s sensuous and rushed tone in the first two lines, saying “Come live with me and by my love / and we will all the pleasures prove” (1-2). Within these lines, the shepherd uses the imperative tense to show the direness of his affections as well as vague innuendo in the word “pleasures” to create an element of sensuality. Likewise, by speaking in iambic tetrameter, the lines flow into a fast-paced rhyme, creating a tension in the poem, as if time is of the essence. This technique helps cement the presence of carpe diem within the poem. The poet-speaker finishes this quatrain by describing the physical setting, speaking in pastoral terms as he introduces the “valleys, groves, hills, and fields” (3). As pastoral settings, in the Romantic tradition, are often meant to evoke the sublime (or the beautiful, which is not the same thing), the poet-speaker uses the physical features of the landscape here to create a scene of peaceful serenity in which his love might be won over.
In conjunction with the rhythmic elements of the poem, Marlowe’s poet-speaker emphasizes the joy of living in the moment. In contrast to the first quatrain, the shepherd steps back in the second by speaking about simple pleasures. Promising his love that they “will sit upon the rocks, / Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks, / By shallow rivers to whose falls / Melodious birds sing madrigals,” the poet-speaker paints an idyllic picture for his mistress (5-8). This tactic also ties the mistress to the serene landscape that has already been described. The poet-speaker’s slow speaking pattern, emphasized in the enjambment of lines 7 and, elongates the phrases of this section and hides the iambic tetrameter’s underlying tension. As the poem progresses, the poet-speaker’s hypotheticals become hyperbolic. The shepherd tells his mistress that “ …I will make thee beds of roses / And a thousand fragrant posies, / A cap of flowers, and a kirtle / Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle” (9-12). As the poet-speaker’s gifts become more outlandish, his speaking becomes markedly faster. The comma in line 11 quickens the poem’s pace, creating the appearance that the shepherd is quickly reciting a list of various gifts. While hyperbolic, the fast pace creates an illusion that the gifts are real. Moreover, feminine rhyme marks the quatrain, creating a lullaby effect for the reader. The speaker continues this list for two more quatrains, elongating some of the gifts, such as “A gown made of the finest wool / Which from our pretty lambs we pull” in lines 12 and 13, before returning to fast-paced recall, as seen with “A belt of straw and ivy buds” (17). The use of “we” and “our” in line 13 exemplifies the poet-speaker’s future desire that, one day, he and his love will be together.
However, in the nature of carpe diem, the shepherd hopes that he and his lover will be united in the present. The poet-speaker’s lavish hyperbolic musings end with a plea for a concrete idea: “come with me, and be my love” (20). It is with this line that the poet-speaker comes full circle, with the final quatrain resorting to more pastoral fantasies and finishing with a repeated “Then live with me and be my love” (24). This repetition of his desire entwined with wholesome pastoral images allows the poet-speaker to slow the pace of his speech and place extra emphasis on his desires, as he hopes his love will help him seize the day.
In stark contrast, Marvell’s poet-speaker steps away from Marlowe’s future hypotheticals and hyperbole to take a stricter carpe diem approach. Instead of offering his love multitudes of gifts in the future, the speaker gives context to the present situation, saying “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime” (1-2). Spoken in iambic tetrameter, the poet-speaker gets to the heart of the carpe diem mentality by bemoaning that, while he would love to give his mistress time to consider his advances, inevitable death is fast approaching. The speaker continues by creating a hypothetical grounded in the present. Marvell’s speaker talks of how they “would sit down, and think which way / to walk” (3-4), using this conditional phrase as a metaphor for his love deciding if she should reciprocate his feelings. This word choice shows a consolidation on the part of the speaker, giving an impression of hurry. The poet-speaker continues by saying he would wait “till the conversion of the Jews,” (10) a reference to the apocalypse, for her to decide, and allow his “vegetable love” (11) to grow stronger. However, his hyperbole shows that this is impossible, as time is quickly running out. This hyperbolic hypothetical gives way to the poet-speaker’s true intentions.
While Marlowe’s poet-speaker is subtle with his more erotic intentions, Marvell’s openly lusts. During the eternity his mistress ponders his advances, the poet-speaker talks of the two hundred years he would spend “to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest” (15-16). While the poet insists on loving every part of his love, the inclusion of her breasts in conjunction with “thine eyes” and “thy forehead” (14) shows his predilection for her erogenous parts. The poet digresses from his preoccupation with the physical when he personifies time, saying, “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” bringing his speech back to the present (21-22). In place of the flowery fantasies with which the poet-speaker begins the poem, he here tells his love about the reality of death. In doing so, the speaker goes into a grotesque sexualized account of what will become of his love after her death. He states that “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” (25-29). The speaker puts forth a carpe diem-esqe false dichotomy: if I cannot take your virginity, it will be left for the worms. This harsh move from images of winged chariots and eternal adoration to death’s realities is the poet-speaker’s way of showing his mistress why they must always live in the present.
While Marlowe’s shepherd lobbied his love with allusions to future rewards, Marvell’s poet-speaker speaks to her physicality in a much more erotic and immediate manner. Stepping away from any romantic appeal, the poet-speaker says, “Let us roll all our strength and all / our sweetness up into one ball, / and tear our pleasures with rough strife” (41-44). In contrast to the subjective concepts of “time” and “romance,” the poet-speaker tries to coax his mistress into physical action. While the speaker knows that he cannot defeat time, he enlists his mistress to help him experience something tangible that may distract them from their impending deaths. Though both Marlowe and Marvell’s poet-speakers make grand speeches to coax their respective lovers into action, they take different approaches to the notion of carpe diem. Both achieve a formal and thematic tension through the use of hyperbole and the structures of iambic tetrameter, but Marlowe’s speaker attempts to woo his lover with fantasies and gifts, while Marvell’s focuses on the immediately physical and erotic. This comparison facilitates a debate between two separate claims on the nature of love, on whether it is most passionate when dreamed of as a theoretical, serene union in the future or when erotically realized in the physical present.
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