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“The Flea,” by John Donne and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell are both love poems from the 1600’s with the shared goal to court their respective ladies. Donne’s “The Flea” shows the speaker trying to woo his lady by convincing her that they have technically already engaged in sexual intercourse through a flea. The flea had bit them both, thus mingling both their bloods and stimulating the act of sex within his body – this was science’s understanding of sex at the time. In contrast, Marvell uses time as a tool in his pursuit for romantic engagement. Time is his weapon in convincing his lady that they should share their love with one another now, while they are both young and attractive. While Donne’s approach to persuade the young lady differs significantly from Marvell’s, both poems have the same aim and attempt to achieve their shared goal through the use of personification, language and form within the body of the poems. The shared theme, carpe diem (Latin for: seize the day), is the fundamental argument for both poems, as well as their most noteworthy likeness.
Personification is a common literary tool, which consists of giving human characteristics to a nonhuman entity. This is used in both Donne’s and Marvell’s poems in order to create vivid imagery and persuade the reader to embrace the theme of carpe diem in order to achieve their goal. In Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” he personifies time in an attempt to court his lady. He writes lines filled with substantial imagery to get his point across to the reader. “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;” is a keen example of the use of personification in Marvell’s poem (506). The quote serves to engage the reader’s sense of sound to create a vivid and enticing image. Donne uses the same literary tool in his piece, however he chooses to personify a flea, which has bit both the speaker and his would-be-lover, rather than time. The following quote is an example of this: “This flea is you and I, and this/ Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;” (Donne, 504). By saying that the flea is not just a flea, but also their marriage bed, Donne has effectively used personification in his poem as a tool to win his argument. While Donne personifies a flea and Marvell personifies time, both are successful in using this literary tool in their carpe diem poems.
The language, or diction, of a poem reveals what is important to the writer and sets the tone and mood of the poem. In Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” the writer chose to express his love with a brief poem, highlighting exactly what he felt was necessary to move forward with his goal. Marvell’s poem is slightly longer, but still brief enough that word choice is an important tool to keep in mind. In both poems, the word choice not only serves to set the tone but also to persuade the reader. An example of this is seen in the first two lines of Donne’s poem: “Mark but this flea, and mark in this/ How little that which thou deny’st me is;” (504). This is a good example of diction because in the first lines of the poem, the speaker is already trying to convince the reader that the act of sex is about as insignificant in size as a flea. The writer immediately captures the reader’s attention and has laid down his argument with a handful of words. Marvell also seems to be a master at word choice; by speaking of time in a romanticized way, the speaker plants his seed in the reader’s mind:
A hundred years should go to praise/ Those eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;/ Two hundred to adore each breast,/ But thirty thousand to the rest. (506). This quote is an example of Marvell’s skills as a writer. Choosing his words carefully, the speaker woos the reader by praising them and saying that their beauty is worthy of worship for not one lifetime, but for thousands of years. He then proceeds to shock his reader by saying that time is fleeting and they don’t have an eternity for him to worship her, as only a woman as beautiful as she deserves. By choosing to first say endearing words about exaggerated love and adoration, Marvell entices his reader enough to then flip his tone, seen through the following word choice: “… then worms shall try/ That longed preserved virginity,” (506). In this line, the speaker is telling the reader that if they wait any longer to engage in sexual relations, then they will surely die a virgin only to have the worms eat away at her and her maidenhead. This is a dark and even disturbing image, however it serves its purpose to shock the reader into agreeing with the speaker and his carnal wishes. Marvel and Donne both do an elegant job of choosing just the write words, at just the right moments, in order to convince their respective ladies to seize the day – and make love.
Perhaps the most undervalued literary tool, form – the form of the poem – serves to set the pace of the poem as well as aid in the reader’s reaction and interpretation. Using rhyming couplets, Donne and Marvell set quick paced poems, keeping the reader from having a moment to think of a counter argument. It also serves the speakers’ arguments to use rhyming couplets, as they are associated with flowery love poem or sonnets; like Shakespeare’s work, for example. The two poems are radically similar when it comes to their structure, each consisting of three stanzas. One recognizable difference in the structure, however, are the rhyme schemes in either poem. Donne’s rhyme scheme is AABBCCDDD for each stanza, while Marvell’s is AABBCCDDEEFF and so on for each stanza. Both are set up in three part arguments: first enamor the reader, then scare the reader into embracing your idea as their own, and concluding with a carpe diem theme to give the reader a sense of empowerment and freedom. The lines “Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;” from Donne’s poem and “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run” from Marvell’s poem both express themes of seizing the day and not worrying about tomorrow (505, 506). Donne’s line is telling the reader that their fears are nonexistent. Marvell’s is encouraging the speaker to outrun the sun (or time) with him. This successfully sways the reader in favor of the speakers, as well as into their respective arms.
In summation, “The Flea” and “To His Coy Mistress” share similar qualities; mainly. The persuasive and alluring theme of carpe diem, also known as ‘seizing the day.’ The two love poems strategically, yet romantically, express their individual arguments through common literary tools such as those discussed earlier. We can see this through the personification of a flea as well as time, as well as carefully chosen diction or language within the body of the poems. Finally, the form and structure of the poem, which dictate things like the pace of the poem. While these tactics may seem exaggerated to the modern reader, the poems are still deemed as successful. Both writers prove to be skilled in the art of strategically romancing their respective partners. In truth, these poems show how the proper use of basic literary tools paired with an empowering theme, like carpe diem, can inspire any writer to romanticize a truthfully calculated argument.
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