Diction in "To His Coy Mistress"

As with other poetic elements, the speaker’s vocabulary shifts as his argument goes through the three phases that make up the three sections of the poem. When the reader tries to understand the position of the listener, the poem’s occasionally difficult language becomes simpler to comprehend. The speaker’s diction changes, depending on whether he is trying to appeal to his lover, to flatter her, or to persuade her.

- line 5 - "Thou"
Poetry was more formal in the seventeenth century than it is today, and we need to take that fact into account when we assess the diction of Marvell’s verse. Much of what we find difficult in Marvell’s language can be attributed to the simple fact that the nuances of language change over time. We may be struck by the formal-sounding “Thou” and the use of “thy” throughout the poem, but again, this was common in seventeenth-century poetry.

- lines 5 and 7 - "the Indian Ganges” and “Humber"
Initially, the speaker’s words are meant to impress his lover, so the speaker alludes to world geography. He also flatters her by placing her in an exotic—and ruby-laden—location (the Indian Ganges) while he remains in England (Humber).

- lines 8 and 10 - "the flood” and “the conversion of the Jews"
Because the speaker’s objective during this section of the poem is to impress his lover, he alludes to biblical history (in addition to geography) as if to assert his worldliness and his intelligence. Such loftiness is absent from the next ten lines, when his objective is to flatter his lover.

- lines 13, 15, and 16 - "An hundred,” “Two hundred,” “thirty thousand"
The speaker’s use of numbers in this section of the poem demonstrates a shift in the speaker’s objective: He now wants to flatter more than impress. Consequently, his numbers only increase, until finally it requires “an age . . . to every part” (17).

- lines 24, 27, 29, and 30 - "Deserts,” “worms,” “dust,” and “ashes"
In this second section of the poem, the speaker reveals his awareness of time’s encroachment. He chooses language that might appeal to the listener’s emotions rather than her intellect. These words are much more physical and visceral than the distant, abstract language of the first two sections, whether the speaker is flaunting his knowledge of geography and biblical history or using numbers to stoke the flames of his listener’s vanity.

- line 34 - "Sits on the skin like morning dew"
In the final section (once the speaker has made his point), the speaker’s diction reverts to the relative ease of the first section, and he chooses words that are more playful and ornamental than those in the second section. The language in the final section is characterized by sweetness and, by the very end, a flaring passion.

Questions for response

1). How does this examination of diction change your understanding of how the poem works as a whole?

2). Find other parts of the poem in which diction is important. What do they contribute to the work?

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