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Gender Criticism of Poetry:
To his Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell versus "When I am dead my dearest" by Christiana Rossetti -- A masculine defiance of mortality through sexuality, a female acceptance of the inevitable nature of death
When examining the poem "To his Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, in comparison to the poem "When I am dead my dearest" by Christiana Rossetti one can see that, although both explore a similar theme of the transience of human sexual life and physical, romantic love in the face of mortality each poet approaches this theme in very different ways, based on the gendered approaches of each author towards sexual congress and religious faith. At first, it might seem to be unfair to compare the male Cavalier poet with the Victorian member of the Oxford Movement Christina Rossetti. Marvell lived an active life as a court poet, soldier, and adventurer. Rossetti lived a quiet and retiring life at home, as did most women of her day, although she was intimately involved in the pre-Raphaelite movement spearheaded by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Marsh, 1995)
However, both poems take the form of apostrophes or addresses in the mind of the poet, to an absent lover. Rossetti's alternative title for her work is "song" or a lyric voice to the poet's lover after her death, while Andrew Marvell's speaker in "To His Coy Mistress" invokes "Petrarchan convention, a poetic mode originating in the fourteenth century in which a male lover uses exaggerated metaphors to appeal to his female beloved." (Ephraim, p.1)
Yet in contrast to Rossetti, Marvell begs his beloved to engage in a tryst with him because of the transient nature of human life. Through sexuality, Marvell states, human beings may avoid or at least may defy death.
As the poet states, his mind is constantly filled with thoughts of his impending demise, and of the shortness of human life, both his own and his mistresses.' At my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Marvell's poem's most famous lines are:
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 honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
In contrast, Rossetti begins her poem with these lines. "When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad songs for me." In contrast to the masculine speaker of Marvell's poem, Rossetti accepts death and how death ends love and human physical desire, rather than desiring to, as Marvell does:
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.
In comparing these two apostrophic poems to the poet's lovers, one sees how the male gendered approach of Marvell reveals how men attempt to defy time with sexuality. While, in Rosetti's vision, women accept time's passing and the fact that the flesh is transient, as they are unable to control their own destinies as women, wives, or mothers in life. Women were married off without their consent, forced to have children in an age without birth control on an almost constant basis. Death, although not chosen by all, but suffered by all, was merely an extension of women's natural life patterns, unlike for males, whom at least were given the illusion of control over their destinies through sexual congress, political efforts in the world, and domination over the female flesh and body, as revealed in Marvell's poem.
Ironically, Marvell uses the specific transience of the female flesh and female beauty as an argument to nudge his coy mistress into engaging in illicit sexual congress before marriage, stressing that his mistress' beauty will not last forever in the "marble vault" of the grave where none shall embrace. Rossetti, in contrast, a woman, shows neither care nor concern regarding her loss of beauty after death. "If thou wilt remember, if thou wilt forget," she states. Presumably, the woman values female beauty more than the male, moreover, if an older woman, the speaker of Rossetti's poem may well already have lost her physical desirability in the eyes of society, as she is no longer young and of marriageable age.
Andrew Marvell, however, from the male perspective and from a male societal viewpoint that accorded males a longer 'shelf life' of sexual survival, clearly shows in his poem that he believes that through sexuality both he and his mistress may temporarily defy time, or at he as a poet least temporarily forestall its ravages with physical pleasure and a celebration of physical beauty. Rossetti, however, shows no interest in physical substance or beauty, male or female, or of sexual excitement of the past or even within the marital bed. She does not remember her own beauty fondly, nor the beauty of the beloved she is addressing from beyond the grave.
Rather over the course of her poem, the reader finds the speaker of Rossetti's poem merely reflecting that death not only is a place where no one may embrace, but that the remembrance of one's physical life on earth fades away and retreats in importance, utterly. There is a feminine acceptance of the flesh's destiny in Rossetti; given as a woman she would be unable to control her flesh and destiny in a sexual manner. Death, in fact, for a woman, is more fertile than life, as the speaker gives birth to green grass as she lies in the grave.
The critic Michelle Ephraim has written that:"Through his verbal artistry, the speaker -- perhaps a figure of the poet Marvell himself -- manipulates his female subject, rendering her both as his idealized beloved and, eventually, as his vision of impending death." (Ephraim, p.1) But Marvell seems just as much to intent upon manipulating and persuading himself as a poet. The poet, through his "verbal artistry" states that death will not touch him because he is sexually vital and vibrant and is able to convince his mistress to yield up her body to him because of his rhetorical pressure and excesses.
In contrast, the female and feminine orientation of Christiania Rossetti's verbal pyrotechnics defies this idea that male sexuality is all important, by stating that human desire and sexuality in general is of little importance after one is death, and any attempts at defying the end of human flesh are so fleeting and futile, one best ignore them. The poet implies this by actually having the speaking subject of her poem speak from beyond the grave and beneath the yielding earth. Rather than painting any picture of what life was like for the beloved and the female poetic speaker before death, because it is so important, this previous life is entirely absent from the poem's frame of textual reference. Instead, the poem concentrates on saying how that that after the female poetic speaker dies, her beloved can either remember or not remember her -- she does not care.
Andrew Marvell likewise paints a picture of life in the grave, but it is a grim one. He also notes, he would indulge in such complaints as his lover's refusal "and she would deny him in perpetuity," if there were no death but because of mortality, males must procreate to ensure that the flesh must continue and human life as lived upon the earth must continue. (Ephraim, p.2) However, in Rossetti's vision of human life after death, there is no grim and stony tomb. In fact, there is a life of greenery and beauty. She writes, in contrast to the Cavalier poet:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Instead, in Rossetti's vision of the afterlife, females procreate the natural substances of the earth in flora and greenery, while males pine away, at least potentially, for lost love and although it is not directly stated, presumably the lost progeny the dead woman could have provided the male with, had she not died -- although it is best, the speaker compassionately reassures her male love, that he forget this and this potential, lost progeny.
In terms of poetic vocabulary and textual reference, it is also important to note how in Marvell's poem, the speaker describes their love as an epic event, a romance that exists alongside the events of the Bible itself, thus ultimately resulting in a poet that mythologizes the speaker in his reference, his rhetorical visions and flights of fantasy, as well as the sexual congress and progeny his potential tryst with the mistress of the title might yield. Marvell notes that his "vegetable love" would ideally grow between the flood in Genesis and the conversion of the Jews, "which…[continue]
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