Subject: Persuasion/Rhetorical Appeals – “To His Coy Mistress”
Event: Birthday of English poet Andrew Marvell, 1621
On this day in 1621, English poet Andrew Marvell was born in Hull, England. Marvell was one of the metaphysical poets, a group of 17th-century poets whose verse is characterized by its sharp wit, passionate arguments, and intellectual elaborateness.
Marvell’s best-known poem “To His Coy Mistress” is probably the single greatest argument ever written in verse. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the poet addresses a young woman who is slow to respond to his amorous advances.
To win the mistress, the poet constructs an elaborate argument, making his case for why she should “act now” and agree to love him. The poem’s three-part structure also is an excellent example of Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals by character (ethos), by logic (logos), and by emotion (pathos).
In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker begins with ethos, establishing his character and credibility with the mistress. Here the speaker employs hyperbole, elaborately exaggerating the amount of time he would invest in admiring and cataloging the beauty of the mistress from afar if only time allowed:
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;
An 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.
In the second stanza, the poet makes a sudden shift from the hypothetical to the harsh reality of the real world. Signaling the transition with “But,” he begins to construct a case based on the logic of their mortality. Devouring time will take his mistress’s beauty, and reason dictates that no one can cheat death.
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.
Having established his credibility and the logic of his case, the speaker concludes with a climactic appeal to emotion. Here the speaker makes his final pitch, urging the mistress to “act now,” presenting the dramatic image of mating birds of prey in flight. In the tradition of carpe diem – Latin for “seize the day” – the poet implores the mistress to join him; they cannot stop time, but they can make time fly by having fun.
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.
Challenge – Head and Heart: What is an essential item that people need to have in their possession every day in order to be successful? Brainstorm some essential physical products that people use and need every day. Select one of the products, and write a sales pitch, persuading your audience to purchase the product. Use the argument structure employed by Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress.” Begin by thinking about your audience and how you can establish trust with them (ethos). Next, shift to reason, by laying out your claims and evidence about the product (logos). Finally, make the sale by appealing to the emotions of your audience and by showing them, not just telling them, why they need the product (pathos).
As author Jay Heinrichs explains in his book Thank You for Arguing, Aristotle’s appeals are the Three Musketeers of persuasion:
Logos, ethos, and pathos appeal to the brain, gut, and heart of your audience. While our brain tries to sort the facts, our gut tells us whether we can trust the other person, and our heart makes us want to do something about it. (2)
Use the following three essential questions to assist you in constructing your pitch:
-Ethos: How can I get my audience to believe that I am credible, and how can I make them trust me?
-Logos: Is my argument reasonable, and how can I organize my points and my evidence so that it is clear and logical?
-Pathos: How can I show, not just tell my point, and how can I get my audience fired up to feel something?
1-Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poets.org.
2-Heinrichs, Jay. Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.