Comparisons and Contrasts of Poems: ‘Go Lovely Rose’, ‘The Flea’, ”To His Coy Mistress”
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The three poems covered are; Go Lovely Rose (GLR), To His Coy Mistress (THCM), and The Flea (TF). They are written by the metaphysicals, a group of 17th century poets who all wrote about similar subjects and went about these subjects by using diverse and imaginative means although unfamiliar with each others work. These three poems all have the same subject; they are about a man persuading a woman to have pre-marital sex with them, but each writer approaches this aim from a different style- through either flattery, wit, threat or a combination of these techniques.
The tone of each poem has the similar aim of being persuasive towards the women in order to convince them to go to bed with the speaker but each poem does this in separate ways. Flattery is used in both GLR and THCM but it is used to best effect in THCM;
“An hundred years should go to praise”
“An age at least to every part,”
THCM shows a whole stanza devoted to praising the woman who is the recipient of this poem. GLRs’ main tone is wit and charm, and the speaker achieves this by personifying a rose and telling it to tell the woman of his affection for her;
“Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.”
In TF the speaker tries to convince the woman that losing her virginity is not looked down upon and does this by using the flea sucking blood from both the woman and himself as a metaphor for sex.
“And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.”
THCM has signs of desperation in the second stanza when the speaker reverts to mocking the recipient by sounding patronising and condescending about sex and her choice to not have sex with him
“And your quaint honour turn to dust,”
The mood in both GLR and TF are happier and more light-hearted, using wit instead of threatening the woman. The mood in all three changes between stanzas, the mood in the second stanza is different because there is less flattery and the stanza is used to legitimise or justify sex as not being morally wrong outside of marriage (in GLR both the second and third stanzas are used for that purpose).
All three poems have different dramatic situations, THCM is written as a direct form of speech in a letter. GLR is based as a man speaking to a rose, giving the rose directions of what to tell the woman when it gets to her. TF is written as a conversation between the two people involved in this poem, the speaker and the recipient, you can see this because it is written as if there was a physical or verbal response to what is being said between stanzas. In TF the response between the first and second stanza is that the woman attempts to kill the flea but the speaker pauses her and explains that if she doesn’t kill the flea then;
“three lives in one flea spare”
The second response between the second and third stanza is that she actually kills the flea which causes the speaker to use his quick wit to change the argument on its head and show her that she thought it would end his affection for her but it didn’t so now what is her justification for not going to bed with her. In THCM the direct speech changes in tempo between the first stanza and second. As he explains to her that;
“An Hundred years should go to praise”
But then this tempo is suddenly increased as the speaker tries to threaten and warn the coy mistress that as mortals death will eventually catch up with them and that they can’t escape it;
“Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try” – this warns her that if she doesn’t act quickly then his praise will not get to her in the grave and instead of the speaker, worms will steal the coy mistress’ virginity.
The speaker’s main objective in all the poems is to convince the woman that sex before marriage is an old tradition and that moralistic traditions are old-fashioned, that sex should be enjoyed while beauty remains instead of being kept away until marriage. The speaker tries to do this by using persuasive techniques; inclusive language, flattery, charm, wit, intelligence and even patronising the women. The speakers both TF and THCM use religious references such as in TF when he tells her that this sex wouldn’t be
“A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead”
He then later speaks of- “Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.”
THCM uses powerful descriptive vocabulary and metaphors to show of his love;
“My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;” – showing that his love will last for a long time.
“Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Should’st rubies find: I by the tide” – this metaphor describes how she is beautiful and should be next to the Ganges; a wonderful and mysterious place that is being explored by the great explorers. This tells her that he finds her exotic and refreshing; complimenting her appearance but also personality.
THCM uses a variety of techniques the most effective technique is the way time is used to structure the poem. In the first stanza the question is asked;
“Had we but world enough, and time,” – the speaker tries to make time a questionable subject, he says that if there was time they would spend the days loving each other, but there is no time for this. He then starts to elongate time;
“Love you ten years before the Flood;” – this shows a time long ago and is also a bible reference.
“Till the conversion of the Jews.” – this shows an unknown and mystifying time in the future.
These lines show that his love is undying, although this may not be true he still says it, he goes on further to show how much he loves and appreciate her in the first stanza. In the second stanza time becomes faster and it seems to be coming after them stopping his appreciation, the speaker says that death will take beauty from her and that death is drawing nearer and is inevitable so why should they wait;
“Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;”
This is the same in GLR when the speaker tells the rose;
“Then die,” -symbolising the end of her beauty and showing her that beauty is only there for a short amount of time so why not use it. The last stanza in THCM brings time to the present tense and makes the decision come now rather than later;
“Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.”
This makes time an object and it says that if time devours you, then time wins, which gives the woman a choice to make, if she chooses to have sex with him then;
“Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.” – meaning their sex defeats time.
THCM is the only poem that offers a detailed reason, even though the others make the same point they still don’t have the detailed explanation that THCM has.
TF shows a witty approach to winning over the woman, the first stanza is all about the flea that to him represents his love and their relationship all mingled together in one flea. The speaker makes the flea the most important object and idolises it. Between the first and second stanza the woman tries to kill the flea;
“O stay, three lives in one flea spare,” – but the speaker stops her and tries to convince her not to in the second stanza, between the second and third stanza she kills the flea. In the third stanza the speaker changes his logic, he shows that his fears are false of their love dying when she killed the flea, so surely her fears of sex before marriage being a sin are also false. This change of logic defies her act of killing the flea and could persuade her to have sex with him;
“Tis True; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.”
This changes the logic and the woman is now made to feel immature that she thought the flea would end any chance of a relationship but it hasn’t and he still loves her and wants to go to bed with her.
The types of language used are very important in these three poems, and the idea behind the poems is the old-fashioned idea of sex after marriage. This was maintained because the church was a very powerful organisation at the times that these poems were written and women would have been frowned upon for having pre-marital sex.
TF uses the most religious language and it uses this as persuasive language. It is used to show the woman that he tries to be religious too and to convince her that he doesn’t just want sex. The speaker makes himself sound more appealing to the woman by using religious views;
“And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.” – shows that if she can sin now why can’t she have sex with him.
“A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;” ~ “And this, alas! Is more than we would do,”
– the speaker doesn’t think that the flea has committed a sin, but she might, he then says that what the flea has done is less than what they would do.
The writers of all three poems show their clever use of language in the 17th century as it is used to disguise clever ‘play on words’ that are not immediately apparent but show of a deeper more sexual meaning to the poem. In TF John Donne writes of how the flea:
“suck’d me first, and now sucks thee”- this clever use of 17th century literature shows the use of ‘s’ as in the times the letter ‘s’ could be written so that it appeared like an ‘f’ changing the context of this line dramatically.
GLR shows an equally hidden message as Edmund Waller writes of the roses’ death;
“Then die!” – this can be interpreted as the withering and essential death of the rose or by the old-fashioned term ‘a little death’ which would represent an orgasm.
THCM contains a more discrete use of language showing the knowledge of word origin used;
“And your quaint honour turn to dust,” – the word quaint as used in this structure could also refer to the former meaning of ‘queynte’ which essentially referred to the original word ‘cunt’.
The metaphysical poets all use the sense of flattery and persuasion to change the mind of the woman of their affections. The speaker in each poem always uses a good sense of wit and charm and offers a good argument by telling of the dangers and consequences of not having sex with him. The poems all contrast with the way in which they approach the subject; GLR writes as if he is a secret admirer, THCM gives a reasonable argument showing both sides of the argument and TF shows a sense of quick-witted reaction to trick the woman into doing what he wanted her to do and then changing the argument around.