I admit, I don’t often read poetry, which some might find odd, given my penchant for Limericks. Nevertheless, 22 minutes of Armitage narrating the Oklahoma Veterinary Practice Act would have drawn me, so of course I downloaded the Classic Love Poems Valentine’s Day surprise from Audible. (Nice move, Audible… very cagey indeed!) In fact, I downloaded it so fast I even had to pay for it, when it was supposed to be free! (They refunded me, by the way… if anyone else downloaded right when it was listed, and before Audible had the chance to change the price to free! The refund just took a few minutes in the chat window with Audible’s online customer service.) Anyway, I’ll admit that aside from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116”, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, 1 Corinthians, and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”, I was entirely unfamiliar with the other poems. If I studied any of the others at some point, I must have forgotten. I plan to cover some of my favorites here on the blog, though. What can I say? Richard has yet again inspired me.
The first one I want to talk about was “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. (Chapter 6, for those of you who have Richard’s narration on hand… please go there now and listen along as you read… it’s so diverting!) I understand this one was written sometime in the 17th century, and I must admit, I was entirely amused! Oh, Richard. You have narrated this so sublimely. Such passion in your voice throughout the first stanza. And yet, I know you narrated with tongue in cheek. How could you not, when you reached the utterly preposterous second stanza? I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to such a lyrically eloquent attempt to get some booty:
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
WTF was that? “The worms shall try” my “long-preserved virginity”? And “let us sport” like “amorous birds of prey”? Somebody smack this man!!! (Not you, Richard. Smack that wicked poet!) OK, so I can admit that this poem somehow managed to gratify me immensely. I can’t help but imagine that were that ode written to me, I’d have laughed about it, after I picked my jaw up off the floor at the sheer audacity of my would-be lover. I have to give credit to Richard, though. He delivered this with just the right sardonic tone, and I had to listen to it over and over. It’s brilliant. He truly is the world’s finest narrator. Forget the sexy voice… that’s a given. It’s his delivery that takes my breath away. I can’t say that poem fit my idea of romantic, but it was still somehow seductively entertaining, and had some lovely lines interspersed among its more outrageous phrases.
It would seem that other poets had some rather sarcastic responses down through the years. My favorite, I think, is this one by 20th century Australian poet A.D. Hope (a man, no less!):
His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell
Since you have world enough and time
Sir, to admonish me in rhyme,
Pray Mr Marvell, can it be
You think to have persuaded me?
Then let me say: you want the art
To woo, much less to win my heart.
The verse was splendid, all admit,
And, sir, you have a pretty wit.
All that indeed your poem lacked
Was logic, modesty, and tact,
Slight faults and ones to which I own,
Your sex is generally prone;
But though you lose your labour, I
Shall not refuse you a reply:
First, for the language you employ:
A term I deprecate is “coy”;
The ill-bred miss, the bird-brained Jill,
May simper and be coy at will;
A lady, sir, as you will find,
Keeps counsel, or she speaks her mind,
Means what she says and scorns to fence
And palter with feigned innocence.
The ambiguous “mistress” next you set
Beside this graceless epithet.
“Coy mistress”, sir? Who gave you leave
To wear my heart upon your sleeve?
Or to imply, as sure you do,
I had no other choice than you
And must remain upon the shelf
Unless I should bestir myself?
Shall I be moved to love you, pray,
By hints that I must soon decay?
No woman’s won by being told
How quickly she is growing old;
Nor will such ploys, when all is said,
Serve to stampede us into bed.
When from pure blackmail, next you move
To bribe or lure me into love,
No less inept, my rhyming friend,
Snared by the means, you miss your end.
“Times winged chariot”, and the rest
As poetry may pass the test;
Readers will quote those lines, I trust,
Till you and I and they are dust;
But I, your destined prey, must look
Less at the bait than at the hook,
Nor, when I do, can fail to see
Just what it is you offer me:
Love on the run, a rough embrace
Snatched in the fury of the chase,
The grave before us and the wheels
Of Time’s grim chariot at our heels,
While we, like “am’rous birds of prey”,
Tear at each other by the way.
To say the least, the scene you paint
Is, what you call my honour, quaint!
And on this point what prompted you
So crudely, and in public too,
To canvass and, indeed, make free
With my entire anatomy?
Poets have licence, I confess,
To speak of ladies in undress;
Thighs, hearts, brows, breasts are well enough,
In verses this is common stuff;
But — well I ask: to draw attention
To worms in — what I blush to mention,
And prate of dust upon it too!
Sir, was this any way to woo?
Now therefore, while male self-regard
Sits on your cheek, my hopeful bard,
May I suggest, before we part,
The best way to a woman’s heart
Is to be modest, candid, true;
Tell her you love and show you do;
Neither cajole nor condescend
And base the lover on the friend;
Don’t bustle her or fuss or snatch:
A suitor looking at his watch
Is not a posture that persuades
Willing, much less reluctant maids.
Remember that she will be stirred
More by the spirit than the word;
For truth and tenderness do more
Than coruscating metaphor.
Had you addressed me in such terms
And prattled less of graves and worms,
I might, who knows, have warmed to you;
But, as things stand, must bid adieu
(Though I am grateful for the rhyme)
And wish you better luck next time.
Preach it, brother! Nice rebuttal, right?