The Logic of Seduction in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

“To His Coy Mistress” is an example of a certain genre of poetry called “carpe diem” (Latin
for “seize the day”). Most of the poems in this genre present readers with a scene of seduction in which a man tries to seduce a young virgin, using a variety of rhetorical appeals. In such scenes of seduction, one might expect the young man to deploy emotional appeals (ie, appeals to pathos) to provoke desire or perhaps ethical appeals to make his own character seem more honest, sincere, and respectful as he tries to win over the young virgin. That’s what one might expect to find in the rhetoric of seduction. But that’s not the tact taken by the seducer in Marvell’s poem. Instead, he concentrates chiefly on making a logical appeal. This is part of the poem’s humor.

Unless she’s from planet Vulcan, this woman will probably not find a logical appeal very compelling. If you were to say to a virgin: “Therefore logic dictates that you should have sex with me right now,” that virgin will almost certainly keel over in laughter. The poem’s humor continues – especially in Stanza 2, with that creepy image of what the worms will do with the virgin’s body after she dies with her virtue intact; and again in Stanza 3, when the speaker uses a really odd analogy comparing the two lovers to birds of prey as he describes the kind of sex he wants to have with this woman as she experiences sexual consummation for the first time. These parts of the poem are hilariously funny precisely because they seem so ridiculously inappropriate for the purpose of seduction. This would-be seducer is getting nowhere with his girlfriend by feeding her such gruesome and violent images. And it’s funny to watch him fail so miserably.

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As you read through the three stanzas (verse-paragraphs) of Marvell’s poem, you may happen to notice that each of them functions as a line in a syllogism. Stanza One functions as a kind of Major Premise; Stanza 2 as a minor premise; and Stanza 3 as a Conclusion. In this journal, I want you to extract and rephrase the two premises and the conclusion. I want you to arrange these premises and the conclusion into the form of a syllogism. And I want you to critique the syllogism, paying special attention to any fallacies you find in the logic.

To help get you started, I want to point out that the poem’s opening two lines are already
phrased in a form of conditional grammar (technically this form of conditional grammar is
called the subjunctive mood): “Had we world enough and time, / This coyness lady were no crime.” A literal paraphrase of these lines would go something like this: “If it were the case that we had the whole world at our disposal and that we had all the time we needed, then your prudish reluctance to have premarital sex with me would not be a problem.” (If P, then Q)

I want you to complete an outline for the syllogism. If you similarly rephrase and condense
the first four lines of Stanza 2, you’ll come up with the minor premise. Ditto for the conclusion. Then I want you to find the fallacy Marvell included in this poetic syllogism. He
put it there deliberately – probably for comic effect. Discuss the logic and the illogic of the
reasoning in this poem and how it is likely to be received by its audience.

Assignment length: approximately 300 words.

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