This Blog is Stolen Property

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Well, Congratulations

I've been doing pretty good on my whole electronic media ban (I had a brief cave-in, but I recovered). I have another nine days of abstinence, but I felt a little attack of curmudgeonliness that just had to get blogged out of my system.

I was talking with a friend once about the general shittiness of our students' papers and he said:

Just once wouldn't you like to say to them: "Well, congratulations. I read your essay and now I hate books. And not just the one you wrote about. You made me hate them all."

I often feel the same way about professional literary critics. Tonight I am reading a book about the poetry of Andrew Marvell, one of my favorite poets. The central thesis of the book is that all of his poems can be read as anticipating the Last Judgment. The claim's not completely without merit, even if it is a little totalizing for my tastes. I mean, surely some things might, every once in a while, be about something else.

But I was willing to play along, until the author gets to this passage about "To His Coy Mistress." This is the Marvell poem that gets most frequently anthologized and so is his best known. [I'll put it at the end of the post, for those of you who were never forced to memorize it!] It's not my favorite, but it's a brilliant and puzzling and fascinating poem about some poor bookworm trying to get laid. You gotta like that.

The author argues that the poet, rather than trying to get into his coy mistress's petticoats, really just wants to convert her, so that she'll be saved.

Convert, you say? Is that what the kids are calling it these days? "Hey baby, you wanna come up to my place and look at some pamphlets about the apocalypse?" Hmmm...I wonder if that line ever works. If so, those Jehovah's Witnesses are getting more trim than a barbershop floor.

Where was I? Oh yes, this dreadful book. Here's what the author wrote:

The speaker compares his sexual potency (‘My…Love’ here implying the tumescent penis) to the absolute power of the final Kingdom over all other Empires: ‘slow’ but sure is its victory, as we know. Another Christological image appropriated by the speaker, this sexual joke picks up the pun on ‘juice’ in the previous line, and is a wittily literal rendering of ‘flesh is grass’ (penis as plant), of Daniel’s prophecy that the clay feet of the Idol/Empires shale ‘mingle…with the seed of men’ (2:43), and of Christ as the victorious ‘seed’ of man (Genesis 3:15)—semen is Christ-like, generative and therefore vegetative, too. In other words, consummation is the planting of the seed of the Kingdom-trees; it is the desired End…and sex is at once conversion and the Kingdom that conversion wins.

Well, congratulations. I read your book and now I hate poetry. And sex. And the Book of Daniel.

Thank you for listening. See you in a week or so,

Here's the poem:

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 winged 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 preserv'd 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 am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.