Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Nick Holdstock on ‘To His Coy Mistress’:
I did not care much for school, and the feeling, I think, was mutual.
By ‘school’ I mean the other boys (had there been girls, I would have felt differently, even if they, perhaps, had not). Often I was bullied in a dull, unspectacular way that seldom stooped to the physical. Instead various names were employed; my bag was frequently defaced, slashed or taken and its contents emptied somewhere. Had I been either academically or athletically gifted, membership of some cricket or chess clique might have provided protection. As I was neither, I spent a lot of time in the library, because there at least I could keep an eye on my bag and copy someone’s homework (even the unpopular are permitted this). It would be nice to be able to say that literature, and poetry in particular, provided a haven, a shoulder to cry on, or some semblance of a bosom that I used as a pillow. But in no way did reading Morte d’Arthur or Touchstones 4 or High Windows (especially not that) make me a jot happier to be in the bloody place.
But it is also true that now, more than twenty years later, I do not recall the names of the boys who bullied me (except for Nicholas Standen, who, if I Googled him, would probably turn out to run a sanctuary for wounded gibbons). And it is also true that when I was asked to choose a poem I liked, the poems that came to mind with no effort were those I haven’t read or thought of since I sat in that library while the wind bent the branches outside. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen. ‘Ambulances’ by Philip Larkin. And this one, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, which I like now for the same reasons I did then (which maybe gives the lie to the notion of me ‘growing up’). It is a poem that requires little explanation (which is not to say that it is simple). It is a work of lusty impatience, one that uses the grandest possible language in the hope of the basest outcome. In its use of overstatement, its employment (and mockery) of the conventions of courtly love, it can be enjoyed in the same way today as when it was composed. Or so I fondly imagine.
Nick Holdstock is a novelist and short story writer who lives in Edinburgh. His work has recently appeared in Stand, the Edinburgh Review, and Textualities. He is the editor of Stolen Stories, an anthology from Forest Publications.