Compare and contrast “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell and “The Flea” by John Donne

October 6, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

During the 17th century, metaphysical poetry was very popular. Metaphysical poetry was well known for its knotted sentences and hidden arguments. Often the argument was the main purpose of the poem (The Flea). Metaphysical poems move from one idea to another often making comparisons between things that have little in common, and use imagery and syntax to try to confuse the reader.

“Courtley Love” was also very popular during the 17th century. Men in these times used to try and woo women by writing extravagant love poems to them; most were adoring the women’s bodies and flattering them by describing their beauty. Most of this was done without any reaction from the women. Some metaphysical poetry mocks this Courtley Love by saying that there is no need for it and it just wastes time (To His Coy Mistress).

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Both poets try to seduce and woo the women into sleeping with them. The Flea tries to tell a story about a flea; how it had bitten the man and the woman and that their blood was now in the flea. The blood is very significant to them and the poet tries to explain how simple and unimportant sex is. The Flea tries to achieve what it wants it with the use if conceits (far-fetched metaphor) and paradox: the flea in the poem.

To His Coy Mistress uses a different way of wooing the lady. It is much more argumentative. The poet speaks on a higher level than the lady and mocks her preferred, traditional Courtley Love. The poem is much more aggressive and structured. The poet gives the woman three different ideas that would confuse her. This poem uses the conceit of time.

The poet of The Flea introduces the insect as a conceit. He introduces the flea saying that it had bitten him and then her, and that their blood was intermingled in the flea. The fragile representation of the flea could also represent the fragile argument of sex and symbolises that it is unimportant. The poet tries to achieve the lady loosing her “maidenhead” to him. He does this by forcefully putting across his argument – that sex is unimportant. Donne uses simple and easy language proving that he speaks to the lady on the same level; there is no hierarchy.

The poet tries to outline in the poem “To His Coy Mistress” that Courtley Love is a waste of time and that time should be spent having fun. This poem is more like an intellectual debate where the poet prays on the woman’s fears and patronises her. He first says that coyness would be acceptable if time was infinite – “… and time, this coyness would be no crime”. The poet flatters the lady by making connections of her to the erotic Indian River – the Ganges and him to the bland English river – the Humber. Marvell then goes on to mock the Courtley Love giving examples of adoring parts of her body, – “but thirty thousand to the rest”. Another way of trying to woo her is when he says she deserves the Courtley Love but that there is not enough time in their lives to do it.

The language used dictates the pace of the poem for example the alliteration and assonance of long love’s day prevents the reader from reading the poem fast. The Flea uses religious imagery in its second stanza when it repeats the word marriage, associated with the church and also mentioning the cloister – a holy place in a cathedral. There are also references to the holy trinity, when he says that killing the flea would be sac religious to God, as she would be killing three people -the blood – and therefore commit three crimes. Donne here tries to make her feel guilty and plays with her conscience by suggesting that she is sac religious in killing the flea, therefore manipulating her how he wants but still talking to her on the same level. In these times blood was considered as being very important. This is because it was not only something used to transfer oxygen around the body, but also it was a symbol of someone’s soul and a physical part of their body. When he claimed their blood was intermingled in the flea he was suggesting that their souls and bodies were also intermingled and that they are more than married.

Marvell’s second stanza changes dramatically from the first where he changes the tone, pace and language portraying nightmarish images like “time’s winged chariot” – death. Marvell changes his tone in order to shock and scare the lady. He gives her unimaginable ideas of what would happen to her when she dies – without having any fun with him first. His second stanza is as forceful as Donne’s poem due to the images he portrays. It also moves far away from the traditional love poetry and trying to woo a woman. Death has a strong influence on the second stanza and is to be feared because everyone is scared of dying. There is also the idea of growing old and being lonely; something that scares everyone as no one wants to be lonely. Another image he portrays is that a lowly worm will take away her virginity when she is dead rather than him; this is a very shocking and disturbing image for her as he tries to make her feel uneasy. Marvell uses the word “quaint” in this stanza, which suggests that he is patronizing the lady and proves he is playing on her fears, as he has little respect for her; he talks down to her. He tries to scare her into bed. The poet uses strong stressed words to make them more powerful e.g.: “Desarts of vast eternity.”

In the last stanza of The Flea, Donne succeeds in his argument and concludes the statements he presented. In the third stanza we learn that she has killed the flea and gone against everything he has said. She has been sac religious against God and committed three crimes and proven by the blood what the poet intended – that sex is unimportant. Simple language is used to symbolize the simple act of sex. The lady in the poem was not flattered into bed; she was reasoned with. The conceit of the flea forms the beginning of a well-argued idea but in an illogical fashion.

The last stanza of To His Coy Mistress, starts with the words “now therefore” suggesting an alternative to the horror of the last nightmarish images. Marvell here tries to conclude his thoughts and offer an alternative to the previous ideas. He asks her to sleep with him before time runs out and compares himself to “strength” and her to “sweetness.” His tone varies in this stanza from flattery and fear; “youthful, hue, Sits on thy skin like morning dew”; “at every pore with instant fires”. This stanza contrasts to the first stanza whereby the third stanza is more masculine and forceful and the first was full of examples of Courtley Love and other pleasant things. Marvell finally concludes his poem by personifying time – a strong theme that runs through the whole poem – growing old: “rather at once our time devour, than languish in his slow-chapt power”.

Simple rhyming techniques are used in The Flea to try and symbolise how unimportant and simple sex is. It is also simple because it talks to the lady on the same level. The last three lines of each stanza sums up what has been said previously in the stanza. The second and third stanzas are responses to the lady’s actions and what she does after he says something. The paradox of the poem is an unexpected comparison between sex, religious and legal terms.

In To His Coy Mistress, rhyming couplets are used to try and set the pace of the poem. These couplets used in conjunction with his elaborate ideas are there to try and confuse the lady and for her make an on the spot decision. These lines also make the lady rush, which is ironic as the main theme of the poem is about time. This rhyming couplet scheme bounds together the three almost separate poems (stanzas) by the tightness of the AA BB rhyming scheme.

The second and third stanzas of The Flea are responses to the woman’s actions: “O, stay” suggest that she is unimpressed and has started to walk away; “purpled thy nail in blood of innocence” says to the reader that she has killed the flea and does not care about the elaborate conceit that the flea and the blood represent sex.

As the woman in To His Coy Mistress has no active involvement in the poem, the reader is able to recognise that the lady may be the feebler of the two, probably because Marvell tried to frighten her. In both poems, neither woman has the chance to put her opinion/point of view because the poets do not let them.

The language used in The Flea is very simplistic and monosyllabic which means that it is trying to suggest that sex is unimportant. It also suggests that he is talking to the lady on the same level. In To His Coy Mistress Marvell uses a very exaggerated tone of language where it uses extravagant verbs and metaphors to put across his ideas.

I do not think that To His Coy Mistress would be very effective as the ideas and language used is too far fetched and includes nightmarish images, which are inappropriate. The Flea offers a more understandable story and meaning even though the conceit of the flea is quite odd. I think that “The Flea” is far more effective than “To His Coy Mistress” because it speaks on the same level as the reader – therefore the reader has more respect for the poet, and the poem is much more easier to understand and comprehend.


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