Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

"World enough, and time"—Andrew Marvell's Coy Mistress


The Lesson


Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), one of 17th-Century Britain's most illustrious  poets.

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), one of 17th-Century Britain's most illustrious poets.

"Had we but world enough, and time"—with these words, Andrew Marvell begins his impassioned proposal to his "Coy Mistress" to "sport us while we may." In his seductive verse, Marvell draws on a theme made popular by the Roman poet Horace, carpe diem, or "seize the day," a phrase students may remember from the popular film Dead Poets Society. Using the language of courtly love, the poem's speaker warns his lady of time's fleeting nature and the imminence of death, urging her to make the most of their time on earth by consummating their relationship. In this lesson, students will focus on how Marvell's use of tone and imagery serves to promote his theme of fleeting time.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Marvell use tone and imagery both to woo and warn his lady?
  • How do tone and imagery work to emphasize Marvell's concern with time and death?

Learning Objectives

In the process of studying this poem, the student will be able to

  • Recognize the poem's examination of the conflict between youth and age, instant gratification and delay, life and death, mortal time and eternity
  • Understand Marvell's use of tone and imagery
  • Name and describe the form of Marvell's poem
  • Gain a broad understanding of Marvell's place in the literary canon


Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

This lesson plan involves students reading Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" at home, with an accompanying guiding Annotation Worksheet. This at-home exercise will prepare students for class discussion the next day. Ideally, the teacher will introduce the background material during the first day of class (using either a full or partial day), allow students to read the poem carefully that night using the accompanying guiding materials, and then hold classroom discussion on the second day. Teachers, however, should adjust the lesson plan as necessary to best fit their schedule.

In preparing to teach this lesson, the instructor may benefit from exploring several of EDSITEment's reviewed websites, which offer biographical and contextual information, online versions of the poem, and clear definitions of literary devices in terms understandable by students.

  • First a tutor, and then a politician, Marvell wrote many lyrics and political satires throughout his lifetime; most, however, remained unpublished until 1681, three years after his death. Today, of Marvell's lyrics, "To His Coy Mistress" ranks among his best known. Biographical information on Marvell is available via:
  • Along with John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, John Cleveland, and Abraham Cowley, Marvell (1621-1678) is typically categorized as a poet of the metaphysical school. Review with students the chief characteristics of metaphysical poetry, which include intellectual ingenuity, wit, and deeply felt emotion. The metaphysical poet may make use of a conceit (an extended metaphor) which juxtaposes apparently unconnected ideas or images so as to startle the reader with their paradoxical nature and force a more deliberate engagement with the poem. Metaphysical poetry is also marked by direct language, imagery, and ironic tone.

    The EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets has a description of the metaphysical school of poetry. Likewise, the Luminarium website has a wonderful introduction to the metaphysical poets with links to further reading. It is important to note that the term "metaphysical" was applied to these poets by later poets and scholars. Other poets -- and their poems -- often placed within this school are also available via this website. If teaching other 17th-century poets, also review the Cavalier poets, who were contemporaries of the metaphysical poets.
  • In this poem, the speaker addresses his lady in the language of courtly love, warns her of time's fleeting nature and the imminence of death, and urges her to join him in making the most of their time on earth by consummating their relationship (carpe diem). In essence, Marvell's poem is an invitation to defy death (and time) for as long as possible by vigorously living in the present.
  • The text of "To His Coy Mistress" is available at:
  • Help with literary terms may be found at W.W. Norton's literary glossary, available via the EDSITEment reviewed website Academy of American Poetry.
  • Students can access the poem and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing Marvell

Teachers may begin by introducing Marvell, his life, and the characteristics of metaphysical poetry. Using many of the resources listed in "Preparing to Teach this Lesson," above, briefly detail who Marvell was and provide his historical context. The poem, "To his Coy Mistress," is an invitation using the theme first made popular by the Roman poet Horace: carpe diem (Odes, Book 1.11: "carpe diem quam minimum credula postero," which translates as "seize the day trusting as little as possible in what is to come afterwards"). Students may remember the phrase "carpe diem" from the popular film Dead Poets Society. As you brief students on the general details of this seventeenth-century school, indicate that while the metaphysical poets fell out of fashion for quite some time, they enjoyed renewed attention with the modernists (who they will likely study sometime later).

As the Academy of American Poets' discussion of metaphysical poets points out,

John Donne, along with similar but distinct poets such as George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughn, developed a poetic style in which philosophical and spiritual subjects were approached with reason and often concluded in paradox. This group of writers established meditation—based on the union of thought and feeling sought after in Jesuit Ignatian meditation—as a poetic mode.

This combination of rational thought and feeling reflects Marvell's logical and passionate argument.

Activity 2. Poetic Form: Passionate Thought

Have students read through the poem once, out loud (you may have a different student to read each stanza). Ask them to consider the poem's form, which reveals a bit more about the metaphysical poet's union of "thought and emotion":

  • How is the poem structured?
  • What do you notice about its form?
  • Does it rhyme?
  • How many stanzas does it have?

Students might note that the poem is made up of 3 stanzas, comprised of rhyming couplets of 20, 12, and 14 lines, respectively. Tell the students that the poem is in the form of a syllogism or logical argument—an argument consisting of a major premise (part one), a minor premise (part two), and a conclusion. For example:

  • All humans are mortal (Major premise)
  • I am human. (Minor premise)
  • Therefore, I am mortal. (Conclusion).

The EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae provides this example of a syllogism

  • Those who perjure themselves cannot be trusted. (Major premise)
  • This man has perjured himself in the past. (Minor premise)
  • This man is not to be trusted. (Conclusion)

The poem appeals to logic and emotion for its overall effect. Ask students to keep the following question in mind as they continue with the exercises:

What is the main assertion in each stanza of this poem?

Activity 3. Seize the Poem: Close Reading

This activity can be done as a class, with students working in groups, or—alternatively—as an at-home reading assignment. Return to the poem and ask students to consider the following questions. These questions are also available on the Marvell Annotation Worksheet. While there are three online versions of the poem, encourage students to use the version of the poem made available via Representative Poetry Online, which includes useful line numbers and annotations.

  • Who is the speaker of the poem? What can you know about the speaker based on his statements?
  • Who is he addressing (who is his audience)? What can you know about the audience based on what the speaker says?
  • What is the speaker's basic argument?

Before students continue with their individual readings, remind them of a few key literary devices. First, note how an author's choice of tone and image contribute to his theme. Remind students of the following terms:

  • Tone is the author or speaker's attitude toward the subject and audience in a literary work (e.g., a serious tone, playful tone, humorous tone).
  • Imagery may be concrete or figurative (abstract) and is used to evoke an emotion or idea.
  • Theme is a central or unifying idea in a work of literature. Remind them also that conflict typically informs most literature.

The Norton Literary Glossary, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets, provides more information on these terms, if needed.

Activity 4. Tone and Imagery

As students come back from their individual or group reading, begin this activity by reading the entire poem aloud again (or ask students to read a stanza aloud). Remind students that a poem should be read several times in preparation for class discussion. Ask them their impressions of the poem based on their reading. They might provide annotations or pose questions that naturally lead into the discussion of tone, imagery, and theme, but if not, you can use the following questions to help students work through these issues in the poem.


  • In lines 1-7, how would you characterize the speaker's tone? For example, is he casual, relaxed, whimsical, worried, hurried?
  • In the second stanza of the poem (lines 21-24), what seems to be the speaker's tone? Anxious? Fearful? Humorous? Realistic? How does the tone in these lines compare to the tone at the poem's beginning? How might the tone in lines 21-24 affect the listening lady?
  • What is the speaker's tone in the final couplet of the second stanza (lines 31-32)? Blackly humorous? Morbid?
  • What tone does the speaker adopt as he draws his argument to a close (lines 41-46)? If you were the listener, how might you be affected by the tone?

Marvell mixes positive and negative imagery throughout the poem. For a quick visual activity that explains this concept, have students use two different colored highlighters (either digital, in a word processor, or regular ink) and ask them to highlight each image, using one color for positively-worded images, and the other color for negatively-worded images. The first stanza is predominately positive; the second, negative. In the final stanza, the positive and negative imagery literally intertwines (which is rather suggestive in itself). Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • What does Marvell mean by "vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires" (lines 11-12)? To what empire does he refer to earlier in the poem?

    The Representative Poetry Online version of the poem footnotes Marvell's earlier references to the British Humber River and the Ganges in India.
  • What is the imagery Marvell uses in lines 21-24? How do lines 21-22 work to snap the speaker and his lady out of their reverie of having all of the time in the world?

    Students might first consider the images of "Time's winged chariot" which recalls Apollo, the sun God, and his fiery chariot. The word "winged" suggests speed—the idea that time is running out. The image of the sun itself emphasizes the passage of time, the cycle of the journey from dawn to dusk. Ask students to consider why Marvell might have the winged chariot be at the speaker's back? Might he be trying to suggest that time (death) is inescapable and that time (death) is something that both haunts and hunts us? What does the word "deserts" connote? Death? Infertility?
  • Lines 25-30: How are the images "worms," "dust," "ashes," and "lust" persuasive warnings to the lady about the transforming power of time and eternity?
  • Lines 33-37: Consider particularly the images: "youthful glue," "morning dew," "willing soul," and "instant fires." How do these images compare to the previous ones in lines 25-30?
  • Lines 38-40: What is a bird of prey? Give an example. What are birds of prey known for? Why might the speaker compare himself and his lady to birds of prey?
Activity 5. Forming a Theme

Ask students to consider the various interpretations of the poem's theme. While students should note the broader themes of time and death, the poet's obvious aim is that of seduction. Remind students about the form of the poem and ask them to reconstruct the overall argument of the syllogism (which they learned about in the first activity). They should move from stanza to stanza, with particular attention to the final stanza of the poem.

As students examine each stanza's building argument, they might note that the syllogism is a bit more complex than the examples provided earlier. Marvell, however, still follows the basic structure. Students might offer an answer akin to the following:

  • Stanza 1: If we had all the time in the world, we could spend years exploring and developing our love.
  • Stanza 2: We are mortal, and time will consume us and our passion.
  • Stanza 3: Therefore, let us embrace immediately with the passion of infinite time even though we are constrained by mortality.

Once they have reconstructed Marvell's argument, they should be able to see how he carefully uses line, rhyme, and stanza to order the poem in a logical framework, while simultaneously offering a passionate appeal to his mistress to consummate their relationship.


Ask students to choose a single metaphor or image and argue why that metaphor or image is appropriate to the stanza, based on their understanding of how each stanza builds Marvell's overall argument.

Extending The Lesson

Use the EDSITEment-reviewed to continue your exploration of other 17th-century poets, in both the metaphysical and cavalier schools.

The EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets has a description of the metaphysical school of poetry with links to other metaphysical poets. Likewise, the Luminarium website, via EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth, has a wonderful introduction to the metaphysical poets with links to further reading and other 17th- century poets, such as the Cavalier poets, who were contemporaries of the metaphysical poets.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Poetry analysis
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

Related Lessons