Wednesday 5 January 2011

"To the Virtuous Woman I Desperately Want to Screw but Don't Want to Marry"

In 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know (2010), John Sutherland uses Andrew Marvell's poem "To his Coy Mistress" to illustrate the idea of 'double bind' (pp. 132-135).

Had we but world enough time
this coyness, lady, were no crime. 
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near 
(L1-L2; L21-L22)

The 'bind' in the poem is that 'If you [the 'coy' mistress] don't submit, you'll die withered up and unfulfilled'. But this 'bind', Sutherland thinks, is 'disingenuous'. The 'Mistress' in the title, meaning both 'adored virtuous one' and 'illicit bed partner', already 'gives the game away'. Sutherland suggests that if the poem were titled "To the Virtuous Woman I Desperately Want to Screw but Don't Want to Marry", the persona's motivation would be more clearly expressed, although admittedly more vulgar. In a double bind situation, inequality exists between someone/something with power who binds and someone/something who has no power and is bound. In "To his Coy Mistress", the male suitor is the empowered one, as 'She cannot answer him with another of the most brilliant poems in the English language. Or, apparently, with the riposte: 'Marry me, then, if you want it that badly' (p. 133). Of course, the world has changed now.

Other literary texts Sutherland uses to discuss double bind include Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, George Orwell's 1984 and Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Of interest here is a neo-classical response poem to Marvell from the mistress's perspective by the Australian poet A.D. Hope; the poem ends with the lines: '(Though I am grateful for the rhyme) / And wish you better luck next time' -- see the video below. In fact, Hope wrote a collection of response poems, and "His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell" is one of them. This collection, then, is similar to Carol Ann Duffy's The World Wife. Duffy's book features works ostensibly narrated by the wives of well-known historical and fictional men, famous men reimagined as women, or women who were well-known in their own right. Some of the subjects are Mrs Midas, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Faust, Anne Hathaway, Queen Kong, Pygmalion’s Bride, Mrs Icarus, Frau Freud, Salome, Eurydice, Penelope, Mrs Beast and Demeter.



  1. I liked Donna's comment:

    "Ah, the double bind. Reject me and I'll call you a prude. Embrace me and I'll call you a slut. A woman is condemned regardless of her choices.

    I would really like to get a copy of Alain Chartier (c.1392-c.1430) original La Belle Dame Sans Merci that caused such a ruckus. Unlike Keats' poem that paints the woman so cold, I understand the original version was more social commentary on how a woman, not knowing if a suitor's words were going to last longer than a night, rejects the suitor. Now the Greeks thought that unrequited love was sinful, but better to shoot the guy down straight away than keep him hanging on in false hope."

  2. If an alien race were to study humanity based on its poetry, it would doubtlessly be baffled as to how humans manage to procreate at all.

  3. Well, I think poets do procreate far less and less often than others.:-P

    But, seriously, has anyone stopped to wonder if men (and male poets) feel the same when it comes to coupling. Usually the only reason another has power is the one allows it. And, anyhow, Marvell might have known he was being silly as he has no real power to persuade. He might have the power to intrude, but his logic is all fouled up, and I think he knows it, don't you?

    But, besides all this, for everyone, as another worthwhile piece of 17th century poetry states, "The heart is wicked above all things; who can know it?"


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