A good idea from ... Marvell

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THERE CAN BE few intellectual challenges as great as that of persuading someone to make love. The seduction of a human being from a clothed to an unclothed state, from indifference to passion, is - unless one is singularly blessed - a complex process. With just a few well-chosen opinions or actions, we know that we may suddenly gain the attentions of the beloved, or, with the wrong ones, alienate them forever. It is, of course, never clear what the right course should be.

For those struggling to know what they should talk about on dinner dates, help may be found in the 17th-century English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) and his legendary To his Coy Mistress. Though attacked by some critics for misogyny (it seems Marvell was not looking for a long-term relationship), we can nevertheless derive one idea from the poem about how to seduce someone, and, more broadly, how to persuade anyone to follow their own wishes rather than the expectations of society.

It is sometimes assumed that we should talk to our beloveds about their job, or their childhood, or recent films. Marvell implies that, if ending the evening together is a priority, we would be better off talking exclusively about death - how soon we will die, how soon they will die, how soon everything will be reduced to dust, the restaurant in which we are eating, the waiter serving us, the city in which we live. More than any joke or flattery, the thought of death may be the way to release others and ourselves from unnatural inhibitions.

Marvell's poem is addressed to a woman who appears to have been overly influenced by The Rules. She seems worried about what other people will think. Marvell takes her anxieties seriously in some of the most famous lines in English poetry; "Had we but world enough and Time,/This coyness Lady were no crime." But there is a problem - he doesn't have a hundred years "to praise thine eyes and on thy Forehead gaze"; "At my back I alwaies hear/Times winged Charriot hurrying near." Before long, both of them will be ugly, then dead and "yonder all before us lye/Desarts of vast Eternity".

While we might think it a good idea to tell our beloveds how nice they are looking at the moment, Marvell suggests that it could be more effective to remind them of how monstrous they will look in a few years time. It is a manoeuvre with precedent. Shakespeare had spent many sonnets urging his beloved to think of, "when 40 winters shall besiege thy brow/And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field."

However deviously this argument may be used, it is persuasive. It corrects our tendency to live as if we were immortal and to defer our deepest wishes to a point we may never reach. Death can lead us to take ourselves seriously. As Marvell knew, it can give us the courage to live the way we want.

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