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Image in "To His Coy Mistress"

The speaker in Marvell’s poem carefully controls his imagery to enhance his argument. There is a discernible progression from exotic and luxurious imagery in the first section to lifelessness in the second and to fiery passion in the third. The power of the imagery in the final stanza gains force because of the progression of imagery throughout the poem.

- lines 6 and 12 - "rubies” and “empires"
In the first section of the poem, the speaker creates exotic imagery, presumably to tantalize his listener. He has her imagination wandering to rivers both near (the Humber) and far (the Ganges), and his evocation of rubies and empires suggests exotic and fantastic realms removed from and more appealing than any domestic scene in England.

- line 16 - "thirty thousand"
The speaker progresses from comprehensible amounts of time to incomprehensible amounts, culminating by asking her to imagine thirty thousand years. The effect of this imagery is to bring her (and us) outside of the immediate moment and into ancient history and beyond.

- line 24 - "Deserts of vast eternity"
While our minds are presumably lost in the reverie of contemplating thirty thousand years in the preceding section, the speaker abruptly changes imagery and brings his mistress (and us) to the grave. The “deserts of vast eternity” could have been the age the speaker would devote to worshiping his listener’s “every part” (17). Instead, neither the speaker’s lust nor his listener's beauty will endure through eternity. The poem has progressed from ten years before the flood into eternity, but the lifelessness of the second section is in stark contrast with the rich luxury of the first.

- lines 27, 29, and 30 - "worms,” “dust,” and “ashes"
To make the lifelessness of the preceding lines even more distasteful, the speaker introduces repugnant images associated with the decomposition of bodies in graves. The effect is to make the listener fully appreciate the important differences between beautiful life and disgusting death.

- lines 36, 38, and 39 - "instant fires,” “birds of prey,” and “devour"
Once he has set up the contrast between the eternity of his love and human mortality in the first two sections, the speaker uses images of fiery passion in this final section. Gone are the ethereal, tantalizing images of the first section; here he is arguing with a kind of passionate intensity meant to awaken his lover’s hot-blooded desire, not to garner her mild agreement.

Questions for response

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

2). Find other images in the poem. What do they contribute to the work?

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