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Carolyn Arends’s Seize the Day vs Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress: Themes and Symbols

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Today and no trust in the future

The Latin phrase carpe diem—usually expressed in English as “seize the day” although its literal translation is “pluck the day” or “pick the day” as in gathering flowers—originates in the Odes of Horace (Book 1, No. 11), “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.” Translated it means, “Seize the day and put no trust in the future.” “To Coy His Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell, and the well-known song by Carolyn Arends, underscore the themes of mortality, freedom, and opportunity. Also symbolism is used in the poem and song to connect us with the themes.

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The theme of each piece shows the fact that people need to be aware of death, but also that we need to accept the opportunities and freedoms that are given to us. The poem and the song state that we need to take life as it happens and respect death as the ending to life. Mortality, otherwise known as “death,” gets a whole stanza in Andrew Marvell’s classic from the 1650s. The speaker presents his vision of the afterlife. While beautiful in terms of the words the speaker uses to describe it, his vision is miles away from hopeful. He thinks that dying is the ultimate lack of control. It’s not as big of a downer as it sounds like. This is shown in line 26, “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song.” Is he trying to say that, if the mistress does have sex with him before she dies, she will be able to hear his love song in the grave? It’s possible. The speaker’s vision of the afterlife for people who do have sex might be very different from the one that he imagines for people who don’t. It’s possible that he truly believes that sex frees not just the body, but also the soul, from eternal nothingness. Also the poem is constantly on the move between images of freedom and images of imprisonment. As we read why the speaker feels trapped, and how he thinks he can get out, we feel the need to examine the freedoms and confinements of our own lives. The poem can feel claustrophobic at some moments, but, at other moments, we feel all our confines crumble.

The song “Seize the day” by Carolyn Arends, talks about using every opportunity we get in life. Our days are numbered and they seem to slip away hour by hour. Life is given to us and can be related to freedom. Not something we have the right to, but are given to as a privilege. In the poem it’s said, “Thorough [through] the iron gates of life” (Marvell line 44) Here, Marvell combines both freedom and confinement in the same line. He reminds us of the “crime” of the first stanza. It also states quite plainly that the speaker thinks life is a prison to escape. The speaker finally describes what he wants to happen – he wants to burst through the “iron gates” of the mistress’s “coyness.” He wants to transform life into a free place.

Symbolism plays a role in both the poem and song. It ties both together and also brings the theme in as well. “To His Coy Mistress” is very concerned with the full range of motion, including stillness. The motion helps the poem pick up speed, and the stillness lets us catch our breath and reflect for moments before we rush on. This back and forth also helps the speaker make his point. His portrayal of stillness isn’t very positive, while his moments of action are full of excitement and challenge, suggesting that our speaker is all about action. We can see this in Lines 8-10: The speaker’s declaration that (if he had time) he would love her “ten years before the flood” and “till the conversion of the Jews” combines hyperbole and allusion to create motion, in this case a sense of rapid movement through time. He also uses the grand, Biblical language ironically to poke fun at the mistress, whom he accuses of wanting something timeless (like eternal love), while saying in the same breath that he would give this to her, too, if he has time. This might create the motion of the mistress running away from the speaker.

In the song “Seize the day”, the song title in itself is showing us to take the opportunity and take the day and make it into something. Don’t just let it slip by like sand in an hourglass. The opportunity that the day gives us is something not to take for granted but used to the best of our ability.

The themes of both the poem and song shows that people need to take life’s opportunities as they come. No one is guaranteed to live forever. This sentiment carries with it an awareness of the passage of time, the fleeting nature of life, and the approach of death and decay, and its exhortation to take hold of the present moment, make the most of the time we have, and live life fully has resonated down the centuries in many poems and songs.

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