Wednesday, 6 May 2020

To His Coy Mistress - Implied Culture vs Historical Fact

Reading Epidemics in Literature


One of the ways of reading 'epidemics' in literature is also to read the 'absence' of epidemics in literature. It can be interesting to read the literature written during and aftermath of epidemics or pandemics. If there is literature which deals with death and yet does not use the metaphor of epidemic to represent death in the literature, it can be something worth questioning.

Questioning the Artistic Sensibility

It is true that the creative writers are not supposed to write the way we want to read. It is their freedom of choice. It is every artist's liberty to deal with subject matter in the way it suits their artistic sensibility. We do not question the poetic liberty or artistic sensibility when we raise this question. What we can try to see is that: who is that poet? That means, not an individual person but a voice of the cultural group or identity that is represented by the artistic voice. It is also to question how different people, in a given culture, at a given moment of time, in a given calamity or epidemic, react to the hardships. How do the people react to the very notion of 'death'?


Here in a very suitable study of Andrew Marvell's poem 'To His Coy Mistress'. The poem is known for it expression of beautiful love-sentiments by a lover to his beloved.

The speaker of the poem starts by addressing a woman who has been slow to respond to his romantic advances. In the first stanza he describes how he would pay court to her if he were to be unencumbered by the constraints of a normal lifespan. He could spend centuries admiring each part of her body and her resistance to his advances (i.e., coyness) would not discourage him. In the second stanza, he laments how short human life is. Once life is over, the speaker contends, the opportunity to enjoy one another is gone, as no one embraces in death. In the last stanza, the speaker urges the woman to requite his efforts, and argues that in loving one another with passion they will both make the most of the brief time they have to live. (Wikipedia)

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.


But at my back I always hear
Time’s wing├Ęd 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.  

Critical Reading of the Poem: Implied Culture vs Historical Fact

Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" tells the reader a good deal about the speaker of the poem, much of which is already clear from earlier comments in this volume, using traditional approaches. We know that the speaker is knowledgeable about poems and conventions of classic Greek and Roman literature, about other conventions of love poetry, such as the courtly love conventions of medieval Europe, and about Biblical passages. 

Indeed, if one accepts the close reading of Jules Brody, the speaker shows possible awareness of the Provencal amor de Iohn, neo-Petrarchan "complaints," Aquinas's concept of the
triple-leveled soul, Biblical echoes, a "Platonico-Christian corporeal economy" (59), and the convention of the blazon. The first stanza, says Brody, shows "its insistent, exaggerated literariness" (60). In the second stanza, Brody sees not only the conventional carpe diem theme from Horace but also echoes from Ovid, joined by other echoes from the Book of Common Prayer, from the Greek Anthology, and from "Renaissance vernacular and neo-Latin poets" (61,-64). Brody posits the "implied 1s3dg1//-3s distinct from the fictive lady-who would "be able to summon up a certain number of earlier or contemporaneous examples of this kind of love poem and who [could] be counted on, in short, to supply the models which Marvell may variously have been evoking, imitating, distorting, subverting or transcending" (64). (The concept of the "implied reader," we may note, bulks large in reader response criticism; see, for example, the work of Wolfgang Iser.) The speaker knows all of these things well enough to parody or at least to echo them, for in making his proposition to the coy lady, he hardly expects to be taken seriously in his detailing. He knows that he is echoing the conventions only in order to satirize them and to make light of the real proposal at hand. He knows that she knows, for she comes from the same cultural milieu that he does. In other words, the speaker-like Marvell-is a highly educated person, one who is well read, one whose natural flow of associated images moves lightly over details and allusions that reflect who he is, and he expects his hearer or reader to respond in a kind of harmonic vibration. He thinks in terms of precious stones, of exotic and distant places, of a milieu where eating, drinking, and making merry seem to be an achievable way of life. Beyond what we know of the speaker from his own words, we are justified in speculating that his coy lady is like the implied reader, equally well educated, and therefore knowledgeable of the conventions he uses in parody. He seems to assume that she understands the parodic nature of his comments, for by taking her in on the jests he appeals to her intellect, thus trying to throw her off guard against his very physical requests. After all, if the two of them can be on the same plane in their thoughts and allusions, their smiles and jests,
then perhaps they can shortly be together on a different-and literal-plane: literally bedded. Thus might appear to be the culture and the era of the speaker, his lady-and his implied reader. But what does he not show? As he selects these rich and multifarious allusions, what does he ignore from his culture? He clearly does not think of poverty, the demographics and socioeconomic details of which would show how fortunate his circumstances are. For example, it has been estimated that during this era at least one quarter of the European population was below the poverty line. Nor does the speaker think of disease as a daily reality that he might face. To be sure, in the second and especially in the third stanza he alludes to future death and dissolution. But wealth and leisure and sexual activity are his currency, his coin for present bliss. Worms and marble vaults and ashes are not present, hence not yet real. Now consider historical reality, a dimension that the poem ignores. Consider disease-real and present disease-what has been called the "chronic morbidity" of the population. Although the speaker thrusts disease and death into the future, we know that syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases were just as real a phenomenon in Marvell's day as in our era. What was the reality that the speaker chooses not to think about, as he pushes off death and the "vault" to some distant time? Similarly, one might turn to a different disease that was in some ways even more ominous, more wrenching, in its grasp of the mind and body of the general population. Move ahead a few years, beyond the probable time of composition of the poem in the early 1650s: move to 1.664-65. That was when the London populace was faced with an old horror, one that had ravaged Europe as early as A.D. 542.It did it again in its most thoroughgoing way in the middle of the fourteenth century (especially 1348), killing millions, perhaps 25 million in Europe alone. It was ready to strike again. It was, of course, a recurrence of the Black Death, in the Great Plague of London. From July to October, it killed some 68,000 persons/ and a total of 75,000 in the course of the epidemic. Had we world enough and time, we could present the details of the plague here, its physical manifestations, its rapid spread, the quickness of death: but the gruesome horrors are available elsewhere. For example, the curious can get a sense of the lived experience by reading Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722), an imaginative creation of what it was like. So disease was real in the middle of the seventeenth century. There needed no ghost to come from the world of the dead to tell Marvell's speaker about the real world. Perhaps the speaker and his lady-knew it after all. Maybe too well. Maybe that is why that real world is so thoroughly absent from the poem.

Want to make a similar critique of the literature of epidemic?

Well, here is a very recent poem written by UK Poet Laureate  Simon Armitage. Would you like to give it a try? Would you like to make a critiqu of this poem with reference to 'implied culture vs historical fact'?

Lockdown by Simon Armitage

And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam.
Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone,
that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine
purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story
of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side
of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river
till she came no longer.
But slept again,
and dreamt this time
of the exiled yaksha sending word
to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
a cloud that followed an earthly map
of camel trails and cattle tracks,
streams like necklaces,
fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
embroidered bedspreads
of meadows and hedges,
bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks,
waterfalls, creeks,
the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes
and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
the air
hypnotically see-through, rare,
the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow
but necessarily so.
Brody, Jules. "The Resurrection of the Body: A New Reading of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress."' ELH 56, no. L (1,986): 53-80.
Guirin, Wilfred. et all. The Handbook of Critical Approached to Literature.
Marvell, Andrew. To His Coy Mistress

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up and wonderful comparison through symbolic similes