VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature                                                                                                                                                                           Page  3 of  15
English 112 (English Composition II




In the film The Dead Poets' Society , the professor, played by Robin Williams, addressing an all-male class at an all-male boarding school, argues that "Language was invented for one purpose: to woo women." The two poems covered on this site, "The Flea" (first published 1633) by John Donne (1572-1631) and "To His Coy Mistress" (first published 1681) by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) have the same purpose as Williams' Professor attributes to language: to woo the women the (male) speakers address in the poems.  

Love poetry extends from the ancient world (and not just Greece: one finds it even further back in the Middle East, India and China--and let's not forget "The Song of Solomon" in The Psalms) to the present. Love poetry comes in many types and serves many purposes, from direct expressions of love and longing, to praise of the beloved.   The type of love poetry with which this site is concerned is what most conveniently can be called "seduction poetry," poetry in which the speaker attempts to persuade the beloved to succumb to his advances.


Click on the picture to go to a web page on Donne

Click on the picture to  go   to a web page on Marvell


While there are many such poems (and more dedicated students of literature might attempt to find as many other seduction poems as they can--including some addressed to men by women), Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and  Donne's "The Flea" are the most famous in the English language.  In addition, they have several striking similarities. In both poems, the beloved is a virgin; therefore, the speakers' purposes are not simply to make the beloved give in to their desires, but to give up their virginity in doing so. Both are also famous examples of metaphysical poetry--which means that both use quite unusual and striking images and conceits or extended metaphors which, at first glance, seem to have nothing to do with the lover, the beloved, love or sex, and which therefore make the poems about so much more than these surface themes.

Click on the picture to  go   to a web page on Marvell



Clearly, such poems will solicit vastly differing responses from male and female readers, as well as from readers of differing moral values, but our first objective with these, as with all poetry, is to understand and appreciate the poems
as poetry. It might also help those who find these poems morally disturbing to know that both Marvell and Donne were highly religious persons: Donne was actually an Anglican priest and author of many famous sermons, including the one which contains the statement, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls--it tolls for thee," and Marvell was a Puritan and close friend of John Milton, author of Paradise Lost.   In writing these poems, moreover, neither poet was actually attempting to (or recounting an attempt to) seduce a virgin; both were attempting, rather, to work within, and to extend, a tradition and conventions which extend back, again, to the earliest literature and forward to today.

This site will take you through both "The Flea' and "To His Coy Mistress", first on their own, along with recorded readings, after which you will have the opportunity to analyze each. Then you will read each poem with commentary.  Finally, you will be given the opportunity to compare the two.   Throughout, there will be links to supplemental resources (some of them audio-visual), and there is a discussion board where you will be encouraged to offer your thoughts on the poems alone and together and on specific elements in each, as well as to share other examples, imitations and parodies of, or responses to, these and other seduction poems.  

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