NOTE: This post is rated R for mature themes.
A long-lost friend got back in touch with me recently through this blog. We exchanged several e-mails and in one of them he reminded me about a college English paper I’d sent him a copy of, comparing the 1681 Andrew Marvell poem “To His Coy Mistress” to the 1987 George Michael song “I Want Your Sex.” I was impressed that my friend remembered this essay, and thus now offer it to you as an amusement.
By the way, as a young college student I was hesitant to turn in a paper on such a racy topic, so I submitted a more standard essay along with it. To my surprise, the professor liked this one better, and even had me submit it to a student writing contest. (I lost.)
Sex: Now and Then — February 14, 1989
One of the joys of poetry is its timelessness; a poem written as far back as the 17th century may well retain its value even in the 1980s. However, we need not read such archaic literary works to become enlightened; indeed, modern works can serve the same purpose, and with entertainment value to boot. Or can they? To analyze the relative impact of modern poetry, I have compared two poems: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” written in 1681, and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” written in 1987. Both poems attempt to persuade a reluctant woman to express her love physically to the speaker; I will attempt to determine which poem presents the stronger argument.
In the first stanza of “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvell illustrates to his companion that had he enough time, he would appreciate her properly by spending thousands of years merely looking at her: “An hundred years should go to praise/ Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze ... An age at least to every part,/ And the last age should show your heart.” He continues by flattering the woman, saying, “For, lady, you deserve this state,/ Nor would I love at lower rate.”
Michael also addresses the aspect of time in the beginning of his poem, though he takes an unexaggerated, more realistic view of the limitation time presents: “I’ve waited so long baby/ Now that we’re friends/ Every man’s got his patience/ And here’s where mine ends.” In contrast to Marvell’s feelings, Michael recognizes that there are better things to do than simply to look at a girl, and appeals to her sense of expediency. While his approach is somewhat less flattering and could be construed as threatening, a woman could definitely appreciate his honesty.
In his second stanza, Marvell gently reminds his lady that “time’s winged chariot [is] hurrying near,” meaning that the restriction of time is impending, and that if they wait too long to enjoy each other’s physical attributes they could lose their chance as old age and eventually death overtake them. He appeals to the woman’s sense of humor, reminding her that “the grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.”
While Marvell takes an indirect route in persuading his lady through subtle reminders, Michael presents a very aggressive, direct appeal: “I want your sex/ I want your love/ I want your ... sex.” Instead of using hyperbole and subtle humor to achieve emphasis, as does Marvell, Michael chooses simple repetition. Keeping in mind the presumed woman to whom he presents his argument, this less complex technique could have greater impact.
In his last stanza, Marvell confides to his mate that he sees in her a passion that longs to burst forth: “ ... Thy willing soul transpires/ At every pore with instant fires....” He proposes that they unleash this passion in order to make best use of their limited time, telling his companion, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
Michael, meanwhile, continues his direct approach by offering a multitude of reasons why physical enjoyment of his mate could be beneficial for her. First, he points out the basic biological urge for sex, venturing that to abstain from it is contrary to every human’s true instincts: “Sex is natural—sex is good/ Not everybody does it/ But everybody should.” Further, he states, it is “fun.” What lively young girl could pass it up, then, in light of these facts?
Then, just in case his woman still has inhibitions, he assures her that it wouldn’t be incestuous, stating, “I’m not your father/ I’m not your brother.” And in case she wants sexual credentials, he cites an example of a woman, specifically his mate’s sister, who has enjoyed him in the past: “Talk to your sister/ I am a lover.” At this point, I think it is safe to assume that Michael has given her every possible reason to satisfy him, without confusing her with complex notions of time—or anything else. Then, he appeals to her sense of humanity, admitting that her refusal of sex is hurting him: “Don’t you know I love you till it hurts me baby.” This demonstrates his respect for her gentle nature. And in case she has forgotten what the topic of conversation was (being human, after all), Michael sums up his argument neatly by restating his thesis: “Have sex with me/ C‑c‑c‑c‑come on.”
Granted, the two poets seem to be targeting a different sort of woman. Marvell attempts to relate to his lady with his claims that he, too, appreciates a slower, more complete appreciation of a mate, and also gives her credit for sensible thinking, as is demonstrated by his logical organization of stanzas. Furthermore, he appeals to her sense of humor though use of exaggeration and ludicrous images. Michael, on the other hand, takes a more subjective, less organized form of argument, which appeals less to intellect and more to the profound axiom that “girls just wanna have fun.” While both poets do have strong arguments, we must conclude that since Marvell’s target is sort of an egg‑head anyway and his indirect approach lacks aggression and machismo, that Michael does present the stronger argument and henceforth the more effective poem.
Besides, it’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.
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