Theological Implications in Poems – Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”

Theological Implications in Poems – Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”


Just like other thematic depictions, religious influences are evidenced in poems whereby poets usually write their poems with nuances of their religious beliefs and upbringing. Such inspirations are portrayed in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and in Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” This paper examines theological implications in these two poems and analyzes any potential religious controversies. The article also analyzes probable challenges these controversies may present to other religious or non-religious persons.

References from the Bible

Since both Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick were English poets whose works were published in the 17th Century, their religious background was mainly Christian. Because of this, the two poems have referenced the Bible, with Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” dominating most of the references. For instance, in trying to win the subject’s love, the poet writes, “I would love you ten years before the flood” (Line 8). It references the poet’s love to exist since the times of Noah’s flood story in Genesis. The poem goes on to mention, “Till the conversion of the Jews” (Line 10), whereby, if they had all the time in the world, he would love her until all Jews had converted to Christianity. No doubt, this is a controversial statement.

Although Noah’s flood reference is polite and less provocative, the phrase about the conversion of Jews is an offensive one. At the time of writing this poem, Christians were motivated at converting Jews into Christianity. It was a controversial era when Jews were being coerced into joining Christianity and believe in Jesus as God’s son rather than as a mere teacher or prophet sent by God. Those who did not convert were driven out of the country (Tartakoff p.29). Moreover, the fact that Jews only saw Jesus as a Rabbi meant that their conversion would take forever, perhaps during the end of time.

Therefore, Marvell uses this phrase as an exaggeration of indefinite time, to which he compares the eternity he would love the coy mistress. This way, he would forever adore the woman’s body, and that it would be easier to tolerate her coyness. Nonetheless, depending on the reader’s point of view, the phrase might be offensive or less insulting to the Jews. The poet might be insinuating the resilience Jews portrayed against conversion, whereby it would take forever to convert them. At the same time, the phrase might be belligerent and rude to the Jews, who might find the insinuation as insulting to their religion. Even so, the poet achieved his intention to describe the possibility of him spending a limitless time together with the mistress.

Belief in Afterlife

Even though different religions believe in the afterlife, they differ in many aspects. For instance, while Christians believe at the end of time, some religions do not necessarily concur. In the poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” Herrick makes references of heaven as he tries to remind the virgins of their nearness to the “glorious lamp of heaven” (Line 4). The poet compares a virgin’s beauty to a flower, which is lovely today, but then fades off the next day. He compares specialness of the virgins to a divine nature, where there is perfection. However, the loveliness should be seized while at a young age.

The mention of “heaven” in the poem may be controversial to religious denominations that do not believe in heaven. That is, as an English Christian, Robert Herrick’s influences were the Bible and Christianity whereby the end is expected to end, and thus virgins should not waste time holding to their beauty, which will soon fade. Rather, the carpe diem is to encourage the virgins to get married. This way, they will not regret “having lost their prime” (Line 15). Religions like Buddhism do not believe in death as an ending to one’s “living.”

Instead, Buddhists believe in reincarnations whereby death is only the beginning of a new life. Therefore, the poem can be offensive and controversial to a Buddhist audience. The carpe diem and pressure for the virgins to consider their lives’ deadline will not be welcomed in a Buddhist context. All the virgins have to believe is a new life in the afterlife, and so they do not have to worry about regretting a lost prime youth. Buddhists believe that a person’s next life after death will be determined by how they lived in their previous life (Anbeek p.17). Therefore, if a virgin stays good and morally adherent to the Buddhist teachings, then the poem’s carpe diem does not apply to their beliefs.

The same controversy is evidenced in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” whereby Buddhists welcome the subject’s decision to be coy and remain resistant to the poet’s advances. That is, Buddhists do not believe in death, but trust in a series of lives, which are based on accumulated karma. Therefore, phrases like “Deserts of vast eternity” (Line 24) are deemed against the Buddhist religion. Unlike Christianity, the mistress can be as coy as she wants to, because if she dies, she will be reborn into another form. She will be reincarnated into one of the six “realms” in Buddhism. Once again, the pressure on the mistress to reconsider her coyness is redundant to a Buddhist audience.

References of Other Religions

In Marvell’s poem, he mentions “Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side” (Line 5) as a reference to Hinduism. The river Ganges is considered a sacred place of worship whereby Hindus take a bath in the river to remit their sins. This facilitates Moksha, which is the liberation from the cycle of death (Spinner-Halev p.31). In the statement on Indian Ganges, Marvell was  contrasting the exotic river the Ganges and the ordinary “tide of Humber” (Line 7), which is a river where he lived in Yorkshire, England. Of course, such a reference is highly appreciated by the Hindus, because the comparison makes the Indian Ganges’ river seem more religious.

Nonetheless, the reference on Indian Ganges can be cited as controversial. Despite considering the mistress as religious (and perhaps a Hindu), the poet goes on to mention that “then worms shall try, that long-preserved virginity” (Line 27). This translates to mean that, if the mistress insists on her coyness, then, once she dies, the worms will try having sex with her precious virginity. The phrase is particularly offensive to Hindus, who believe in Ganga as a personified goddess meant to relinquish their sins.

Similarly, in Herrick’s poem, he is targeting virgins whereby he urges to reconsider their virginity, and thus they should get married. He argues that time is running out. Well, this is applicable for Christians, whereby death is the end of one’s existence, physically and spiritually. However, in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, reincarnations are of great importance. Therefore, both Marvell’s and Herrick’s poems offer a challenge to Buddhist and Hindu audiences. The pressures to give in to demands of worldly pleasures are redundant to Buddhists and Hindus but are acceptable to a Christian.




Works Cited

Anbeek, Christa W. “Buddhism and Christianity.” Bijdragen, vol 66, no. 1, 2005, pp. 3-19. Informa UK Limited, DOI:10.2143/bij.66.1.562903

Spinner-Halev, Jeff. “Hinduism, Christianity, And Liberal Religious Toleration.” Political Theory, vol 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 28-57. SAGE Publications, DOI:10.1177/0090591704271472

Tartakoff, Paola. “Christian Kings And Jewish Conversion In The Medieval Crown Of Aragon.” Journal Of Medieval Iberian Studies, vol 3, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27-39. Informa UK Limited, DOI:10.1080/17546559.2011.556701