The Review of English Studies, August 1993 v44 n175 p386(3)

Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' and Sandys's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ray, Robert H.

Abstract: Andrew Marvell's adaptation of 'To His Coy Mistress' present clarifications on the interpretation of the Echo and Narcissus story in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The speaker in his poem corresponds to the female Echo while the 'coy mistress' is reflective of Narcissus in Ovid's work. George Sandys's translation of the Metamorphoses seems to be the source of Marvell's depictions in his poem.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1993 Oxford University Press

MARVELL's clever adaptations of myths, including stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses (e.g. Apollo and Daphne, Pan and Syrinx in 'The Garden'), are well known. However, his adaptation in 'To His Coy Mistress' of the Echo and Narcissus story from Book 3 of Metamorphoses, specifically in the popular and frequently reprinted seventeenth-century translation by George Sandys, has not been noted. Verbal and thematic parallels are striking enough at key points to suggest that Sandys's translation is a source for aspects of 'To His Coy Mistress'. Indeed, one particular verbal parallel might help scholars solve the most debated textual crux in all Marvell's works.

The beginning of the concluding verse paragraph of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' (lines 33-7 of the poem) presents the speaker urging the lady as follows:

Now therefore, while the youthful hew Sits on thy skin like morning glew, And while thy willing Soul transpires At every pore with instant Fires, Now let us sport us while we may . . .(1)

The most debated point concerning Marvell's text is whether or not 'glew' is correct as it stands in the folio (meaning 'glow' in a dialectical form) or whether it should actually be 'dew' or 'lew'.(2) One should compare these lines by Marvell with the following from Sandys's translation of Ovid:

Narcissus seen, intending thus the chace; She forth-with glows, and with a noiselesse pace His steps pursues; the more she did persew, More hot (as nearer to her fire) she grew: And might be likened to a sulph'rous match, Which instantly th'approached flame doth catch, How oft would she have woo'd him with sweet words!(3)

The image of the skin glowing with beauty and the latent fire of passion is common to the passages and supports the view that Marvell's 'glew' is very probably equivalent to 'glow'. Quite important also is the probable source in Sandys's translation for Marvell's 'instant Fires'. Sandys's picture of Echo's potential for passionate heat as a match that instantly will burst into flame next to the passionate object seems merely the detailed image that Marvell condenses: in Marvell it becomes the image of the lady's latent heat that the speaker wishfully pictures as her 'willing Soul' ready to burst into flame with 'instant Fires'. The male speaker will provide the heat to enkindle the potential passion that is lurking in her physical beauty. Marvell's use of 'instant Fires' so closely parallels Sandys's 'instantly th'approached flame doth catch' that the phrasing and idea seem beyond coincidences.

For further evidence, one can see that other facets of Marvell's poem reflect Ovid's account of Echo and Narcissus. In the context of the poem as a whole, Marvell's male speaker actually makes himself comparable to the female Echo. The speaker is longing for the love of an unresponsive female who, ironically, is comparable to the male Narcissus. The lady, the 'coy mistress', by implication and description is like that self-loving and extremely beautiful youth. The speaker says, 'Thy Beauty shall no more be found; / Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound / My ecchoing Song' (lines 25-7): 'ecchoing' illustrates Marvell's typical wordplay through an original and literal meaning (e.g. 'amaze' as 'a maze' in the first line of 'The Garden'). His song is literally an 'Echo-ing' one--i.e. very like one of Echo's seeking a response from Narcissus in their encounter in the woods: Echo's implorings for them to 'join' will no longer be heard after death, just as the man's own Echoing song will no longer be possible after death in the lady's tomb. The 'coy mistress', then, is implied to be like the Narcissus of Ovid: 'Yet, in his tender age his pride was such, / That neither Youth nor Maiden might him touch'.(4) Also, the coy mistress's implied preference of death before loss of 'quaint Honour' (line 29) to a sensual seducer is found in Sandys's account of the exchange between Narcissus and Echo when Echo tries to embrace him:

Thrust back, he said, Life shall this breast forsake, Ere thou, light Nymph, on me thy pleasure take. On me thy pleasure take, the Nymph replyes To that disdaineful Boy, who from her flyes.(5)

Marvell's speaker, just as Echo, responds to the threat of the loved one's death with its lively opposite, 'pleasure'. He urges (lines 43-4) his own 'disdainful' loved one to join him 'And tear our Pleasures with rough strife, / Thorough the Iron gates of Life'.

Thus, beyond being the possible source of certain specific phrases in Marvell's poem, Sandys's Ovid seems to be employed by Marvell to add dimensions to the characters of the lady and the speaker. Marvell is able explicitly to characterize the 'coy mistress' as self-loving, proud, and disdainful simply by making her analogous to Narcissus. In turn, the analogy of the male speaker and Echo generates subtle sympathy for the supposedly pitiably spurned wooer. And, of course, the male speaker's ultimate warning to the lady is that the result of coyness, disdain, pride, and self-love is indeed the fate of Narcissus, death. And if the lady remains unresponsive, this man (the asserter of life and pleasure), like Echo, will only pine away into a voice with neither a body nor a body's physical expression. Quite literally, then, this speaker's and Echo's 'ecchoing song' of life, pleasure, and vitality must be heard and responded to now, for it will not be heard in the grave.

1 Miscellaneous Poems (London, 1681), 20. All my quotations of Marvell's poem are from this original folio edition.

2 For a summary of the major contentions, see the commentary about this line on pp. 253-4 in vol. i of The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 3rd edn., rev. Pierre Legouis with the collaboration of E. E. Duncan-Jones (Oxford, 1971). Editions, articles, and notes continue to argue and speculate to the present: see, for example, Andrew Marvell, ed. Frank Kermode and Keith Walker (Oxford, 1990), 288-9.

3 Ovids Metamorphosis Englished, by George Sandys, 4th edn. (London, 1656), p. 53, lines 370-6.

4 Ibid. lines 354-5.

5 Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, p. 54, lines 390-3.