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Tone in "To His Coy Mistress"

“To His Coy Mistress” is a carpe diem (or “seize the day”) poem in which the speaker tries to convince the listener to go to bed with him. As such, we might expect the tone to be ribald, lusty, or perhaps insincere, as the speaker will presumably say anything to argue his case. Yet the lighthearted tone of the poem suffers from the introduction of the concept of death in the midsection, and the overall tone is more melancholy than it would have been otherwise.

- line 15 - "Two hundred to adore each breast"
As throughout the entire first section of the poem, here the speaker sounds as though he might be wearing a sly smile. He is flattering his lover to the point of exaggeration, and he is careful to point out that he would spend twice as much time adoring her breasts than he would spend on her eyes and forehead. The tone in this section is thus insincere and ribald.

- lines 27, 29, and 30 - "worms,” “dust,” and “ashes"
These words alter the tone introduced in first section of the poem through imagery associated with decomposition. These words firmly establish the chilling reality of death. The tone here is sincere and melancholic, and its effect on the overall tone is enduring.

- lines 36, 39, and 43 - "fires,” “devour,” and “tear"
The tone in this final section, fueled by the increasing tempo and the naturalistic imagery, is positively lusty. These words emphasize the tone, but they have clearly been affected by the midsection’s melancholy tone. It is less likely that the speaker is wearing a sly smile in this final section; if he is smiling at all, he is likely gritting his teeth.

Questions for response

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

2). Find other shifts in tone or words that help set a certain tone in the poem. What do they contribute to the work?

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