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Irony in "To His Coy Mistress"

The poem’s entire first section (lines 1-20) is ironic in the sense that the speaker knows that he isn’t being sincere. His tone and rhetoric shift in the second and third sections, but the ironic tone has been set in the first: This speaker uses words to his advantage, and we can take little of what he says at face value.

- line 1 - "Had"
The first section of the poem is a calculated series of hyperbolic statements that are meant to impress and flatter the listener, and the first word, “Had,” sets this section in the realm of the subjunctive tense. Essentially, the speaker is saying, “If we were to live forever, I could spend a great deal of time seducing you.” Of course, they won't live forever, and the speaker knows that before he even begins his flattery.

- line 19 - "you deserve this state"
Part of the speaker’s irony here is his knowledge that, although the lady might “deserve this state” of leisurely seduction, because she is mortal she cannot have it. All of his grandiose pronouncements throughout this section are put in perspective by the knowledge that they are all based on fantasy.

Questions for response

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

2). Find other examples of irony in the poem. What do they contribute to the work?

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