Oh No! She Wants Us To Read Some Stupid Love Poem

I really should have thought this through a little more. I knew when I enrolled that reading would be an integral part of the literature course, but for some reason I never considered exactly what type of material I would be required to read.

That's not like me. I'm usually very methodical and deliberate. I sit and stew about possible scenarios and plan my responses in advance for any potentiality that could surface, much in the same way that a chess master knows which pieces will be moved before ever sitting down to play. All I considered when I registered was that, after being away from formal education for a number of years, I was back and had been told that this class was a required part of my computer science curriculum.

Perhaps I hoped that the entire course would be about Hemingway, Faulkner, and Lewis. Maybe there would be a little Hamlet or something by Mark Twain thrown in for balance. But there it was in all its white chalk glory, glaring down on all of us from its position on the blackboard. The assignment was to read and prepare to interpret several pieces of pantywaist poetry that dealt with "man-woman relationships."

I probably should have been more open-minded, but my first impression was that this entire assignment was going to be a tremendous waste of time that would force me to ponder some touchy-feely romantic drivel that had spewed from the sorry psyche of some 17th-century sissy. I did not want to do this, but in my heart I knew that I did not really have a choice. Even as a young boy, I never liked to read much about emotional stuff. I could never understand how anyone would want to climb into someone else's mind that way. I liked stories that had plenty of action. It was fun to read about far way places that I could see for myself someday. I loved to read about the latest gadgets or how to make things. The only time I ever wanted to read about people was if they were fighting a battle or doing something with a dinosaur. Feelings in books were only acceptable when those feelings involved fear. Some historical works were tolerable, but only if they focused on the achievement. I never wanted to know anything about the sentiment.

When I started to accept that I would have to complete this chore whether I liked it or not, I trudged over to the other side of the small campus and sat down at one of the secluded tables way in the back of the student commons. I set out my yellow pad of paper. I checked my pen to make sure it would write. I ate an apple. I glanced at the announcement board to see if there was anything new. I even hoped that somebody, anybody, would walk by and distract me so that I would have at least some half-valid excuse for stalling. I finally resigned myself to completing the task at hand. I opened my textbook to page 706 and started reading the 90-word introduction.

The paragraph mentioned that the poem's author, Andrew Marvell, lived in the mid-1600s., was a member of the British Parliament and was a backer of the Puritan political party. It went on to say that Marvell, in addition to his love poems, wrote many political satires. According to the book, he was just a part-time sissy.

I started to half-heartedly read the poem itself. It seemed to be about some horny fellow who, by using fancy words and flattery, was trying to convince some girl to "sleep" with him. Our hero tells the girl how wonderful she is, that he'll respect her decision, and then puts forth the argument that somebody is going to do it sometime so it might as well be him and it might as well be now. It reminded me of Billy Joel's message to Virginia in that song from a few years back.

As I sat there staring at the page, I thought that there had to be more to it than what I was seeing. The meaning seemed to be too simple, too cut and dried. There were phrases that, at least in my mind, did not make a lot of sense if all this guy wanted to do was compromise some young woman's virtue. When I read the part that mentioned finding rubies by the banks of the Ganges I wondered why the poet had chosen that river instead of referring to the equally exotic Nile or Euphrates. The man in the poem tells the girl that she should have "Two hundred to adore each breast, but thirty thousand to the rest." Thirty thousand of what and why was this number chosen to play opposite the 400 of the previous line? If he wanted to really impress her, wouldn't a hundred thousand or even a million of whatever he was describing have presented a better argument?

I kept having one of those nagging sensations that we all experience from time to time. It seemed to tell me that there had to be some deeper message hidden in the speaker's lyrical banter. So, being somewhat of a research rat, I headed upstairs to the library and made a beeline to the closest computer terminal to hit the Internet. First, I needed to know more about Marvell. After a few moments of searching, I found a short biography. It stated that Andrew Marvell had been a live-in tutor to the children of Lord Fairfax for a couple of years in the early 1650s. From there, he went on to tutor the ward of Oliver Cromell. Later he was given a government post and finished out the last 20 years of his life serving as a Member of Parliament representing his hometown of Hull. I gathered from this that Marvell might have been better connected politically than my textbook had suggested.

Another web page told about Marvell's literary efforts. It listed a few love poems but mostly contained information about his political writings. It was here that I discovered that the first publication of "To His Coy Mistress" did not happen until after the poet's death. However, an opinion was offered that the poem was probably written about the same time Marvell was living in Lord Fairfax's house.

As I read on, new questions derived from some of the little facts I had picked up along the way started creeping into my consciousness. Didn't the English behead their king just a few months before the time frame in which the poem is supposed to have been written? Wasn't that event the culmination of almost a decade of civil war over there? What was the name of that big battle where the Roundheads defeated the Royalists? Didn't Lord Fairfax, as head of the Parliamentary forces, help Cromwell establish his military dictatorship during the same period of time that Marvell was tutoring their kids? What was the exact date of Cromwell's Instrument of Government?

The more I searched, the more I persuaded myself that this poem wasn't about sexual lust at all. I began to believe that Marvell had actually composed this work as a political wish list. I formed an opinion that the poem had been written as a call for a reunification of the British people and a hope that the new government, whatever that would be, would be responsive to all of Britain, not just to a privileged few. Without too much contrivance, the imagery seemed to fall very neatly into place.

The juxtaposition of the Humber River with the Ganges must have represented England's continuing efforts to build a colonial empire. The several mentions of love and respect could be interpreted as being a people's patriotic love for their country. The lines about being in the grave could have been Marvell's expressed opinion that England would never withstand another civil war. A quick informal guesstimate indicated that, toward the end of the 1640s, there would have been about 400 men who held seats in the bicameral British Parliament. And when the number of troops who fought on both sides in the Battle of Naseby, considered to be the decisive battle of the English civil war, is tallied, the total comes to just short of 30,000.

This was really exciting! The poem was not just some simple-minded attempt at seduction after all. This piece appeared to be purely political. It was written about war and government and imperialism. It was about important manly concerns.

I gradually convinced myself that I had stumbled upon the true nature of the poet's inspiration. The only thing left to do was to find some kind of authority that would verify my interpretation. Once again I turned to the largest library system the world has ever known, the Internet. In spite of my best research efforts, I was unable to find anyone who had a similar impression. I perused several hundred documents that weekend. The pages that offered comments interpreted the poem in the same manner that the textbook had, as an appeal for sex. Other sites were frilly-looking girly-type pages which offered no commentary and simply presented the poem set against some kind of fluffy pink background.

I started to think that I must have looked at something wrong. Maybe I had missed some subtlety, but each time I reread the words, my interpretation became even clearer. Maybe I had been looking at the poem's lines too closely? No, I was fairly certain that hadn't happened. But how was it possible that I couldn't find at least one other mind out there that agreed with me?

My doubting also made me think about the possible reactions that I would receive if I announced my suspicions in class. If I had made a mistake, I would not just be the old guy any more. I would become the crazy old guy. Because I was born in a different generation, I was already cast as a tolerated outsider. Bringing in some half-witted idea that started out somewhere near the edge of consciousness that couldn't really be verified could reduce even this lowly standing if it was ill received. Flying in from somewhere out beyond left field with an explanation that was starting to look like it had not been broached in 300 years would be a lot like playing with fire.

I went down to the university a little earlier than usual that Monday morning. I saw a couple of the younger guys who were in the same class and decided to test my assumptions on them. When they didn't totally reject my argument, I decided to go for it. This wouldn't be the first time, and it probably wouldn't be the last time, that I had done something to get myself labeled as some kind of nut.

I walked toward class that day feeling much like I imagine a warrior must feel like just before a battle. My stomach was knotted. My mouth was dry. I had trouble concentrating on anything other than making my case. In my mind, I kept playing through all possible rebuttals and how I could conquer any argument to prove my point. Eleven-thirty came and I was ready to knock their socks off. I was ready to start and finish this argument. I was going to win this one.

The moment was fast approaching. The professor had asked us for our comments. I waited, knowing that delay would give me an advantage. A few other students put forth their ideas that the poem was a case of reasoned logic. . . salesmanship as it were. They proposed that the speaker wanted sex and was only making a pitch. They even proposed that his organization of ideas into a simple problem-explanation-solution format was actually a little cold-hearted. Apparently these others had fallen for Marvell's clever ruse of masquerading ideology as a straightforward well planned seduction. It was time to drop my bomb.

I raised my hand and made my announcement that this poem did not belong in this section at all. I stated that it had nothing to do with man-woman relationships and that it was purely political rhetoric. The instructor looked me in the eye and asked me to explain. Yes! I knew it! I was right! So I proceeded to lay out my case point by point. The other students in the class reacted with . . . silence.

I don't think I ever thought that anyone would cheer, but I had certainly hoped that someone would want to fight. After all, I had just challenged the other's ability to comprehend. At the very least, I expected someone to question my logic. But the only reaction was no reaction.

The professor recognized the fire in my eyes, though. Before she led us on to another discussion of a different work, she said she would like to discuss this a little more at a later time. Maybe she agreed with me or maybe she did not. Maybe she thought she saw some kind of glimmer in this brief attempt at originality or maybe she just liked the fact that she had assigned a poem that a man had actually taken seriously enough to make an effort.

I do know that once I finally got started, I really liked the hunt for the essence of Marvell's words. I know that, whether my final assumptions were right or wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the anticipation of the battle that never took place. And I know that I had a lot more fun analyzing this slightly veiled piece of political commentary than I ever would have had writing about some of that sissified, emotion-filled nonsense.

Skeptical??? Click here to check my notes


Last Updated 5/12/2008 9:09:43 PM by 'Editor'

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