Yesterday, I did something laughably mundane. I got a haircut. During the worst of the pandemic, this was by no means as trivial a matter as it ordinarily had been. A catalogue of almost invisibly routine phenomena was lit up with fresh strangeness by that crisis. Other humans were feverishly wiping down their groceries with bleach or replacing their masks between sips of iced coffee. It was a time of fear, confusion and anxiety.
Things have slowly returned to what at least resembles normal in the part of the world where I live, so going for a haircut is no longer a matter of weighing being shaggy and disheveled against being intubated. I will confess at this point that I kept going once a month because, in addition to the aforementioned anxious calculations, as a solitary bachelor who taught exclusively online for the first year or so, I wasn't being touched at all. Save by accident in a crowded elevator or corridor, or in the sordid throes of DIY drudgery--Diogenes reputedly remarked when scolded for publicly masturbating that he wished he could end hunger by rubbing his belly--I was suffering from acute tactile starvation of a sort that is comically caught in this aged scene from Frasier, whose eponymous protagonist should return to Marvell's work and say when, but I digress. The scene:
My cuticles spoke volumes when the plague stalked local streets. But I went yesterday out of custom and habit, unmasked. What was remarkable about this experience was the fact that it offered me a blunt, stunning reminder of the uncanny power of Andrew Marvell's 17th Century, metaphysical poem, "To His Coy Mistress." The situational irony involved was rich and humbling. Let me explain.
When I walked into the hair salon, of which I have been an obstinately--or perhaps slothfully--loyal patron for many years, I was surprised by the dewy youth of the two humans behind the counter. When the clever and charming human who has been managing my mad hair for the better part of the last year shepherded me gently to her station, I asked her if I am simply growing curmudgeonly or if she, too, had noted the serious youth of the humans at the counter. It could have been the case that someone had left their offspring unattended and, as a prank, they had decided to admit customers.
She replied that they were, in truth, too young for the job in her judgment. She then told me that she had had a difficult week at the salon, for some preening aristocrat had decided that she would take advantage of the salon's standing offer of a free bang trim to anyone who had availed him, her or themselves of a proper cut. I left the fact that the phrase "bang trim" sounds like a filthy euphemism unremarked and pressed her for further details. She confided that this required her, the expert kindly ministering to my middle-aged mane, to drive the fifteen kilometers from her dwelling to the salon, carefully trim the aristocrat's bangs, then drive home. Gratis. Not a cent was offered to her as a gratuity. I shared her outrage.
When I returned to the counter, one of the youths looked up from two screens--the computer she was dallying with and the phone she was firmly committed to, respectively--bit her lip, fidgeted and said, "I looked at your file."
There is something about those words that causes one's every sphincter to clench, no? I mean, I have read my share of Orwell and Kafka. The next scene is usually in a dim and stinking dungeon and involves torture or death. I let the wave of panic ebb, and replied: "Yes?"
"Like, you were my Mom's client back in the day, right? Sherry. She cut your hair like, a hundred times or whatever. Isn't that funny?"
Vertiginous is an oft neglected adjective that fitted my reaction like a condom. I could feel the room contract for a millisecond, then everything solid thawed and evaporated and a freshly dug grave yawned beneath my feet. I aged and dried before her like a sirloin. Somehow, while the petty pace of my silly life had crept on, this human's mother had found time to select a mate, savor the romance, reproduce, nurture and coddle this human and then send her into the warm embrace of her erstwhile employer. I became a dusty fossil before her eyes. I collected myself as best I could and croaked: "Sherry. Yes, she was kind, and enjoyed a good laugh, no? Please thank her for attending to the old nerd."
"I will!" Said she, as if she had won a game of some kind. She rang me up and I left. As I was walking out, the words of this poem began to thunder in my mind. I have taught it many times, to many crowds of surly, indifferent humans. I have never felt the razor of its meaning against my skin before:
Marvell was white and male and cis (I think I have that right) and is long dead. So what? This poem is a perfect wedding of form and function and its treatment of its theme is so deft, so dexterous as to beggar understanding. A person as fallible and fragile as you or me made it, and did so excellently well. We do not respect much in our benighted age. We ought to respect the ability of some humans to capture reality in language and keep it alive in the process. Taxidermy, this is not. Keeping life alive and moving in a suspension of syllables is closer to the mark.
After all, this poem is divisible into form and content: how it is written on one hand, and what it conveys to the rapt reader or listener on the other. It consists entirely of rhyming couplets, which is to say that the last syllable of the first line produces the same sound as the last syllable of the second, and that carries on being true for the duration. It is also written in iambic tetrameter, a metrical form that produces lines of eight syllables in pairs whose members are stressed and unstressed by turns. It is made of pairs, just like the pair of parties to the complex relationship it represents. The speaker, the lyric "I" or persona (not to be naively mistaken for Marvell himself, for this is a lyric poem, not a furtive text message or a tear-stained diary entry) is engaged in a rhetorical exercise; it is a campaign to seduce his interlocutor: his coy mistress. The form of the poem mirrors its content exactly. Gargantuan problems arise when you try to get this just right. I have discovered the truth of this through painful efforts of my own. Many of you will have done the same. Marvell merits respect on this basis alone.
However, we should also consider the care and precision with which each word was chosen, each image conjured, the better to lay bare the thoughts and feelings of the speaker concerning the nucleus of the whole artful atom: the theme.
It is a sad fact that the Latin phrase, Carpe Diem, is a coin rubbed illegible and worthless, a cliché, probably thanks to the influence of Robin Williams on the popular imagination of humans all around our swiftly spinning stamping ground:
Marvell's poem is often reduced to this shopworn phrase: "Until recently, 'To His Coy Mistress" had been received by many as a poem that follows the traditional conventions of carpe diem love poetry." Wikipedia follows this up with a grudging admission that things have changed in some precincts on this score, and well they should. There is a galaxy between merely saying, "Enjoy yourself while you can because you'll be dead soon," and living with the jagged, venomous truth of that proposition every time you make a decision, whether Brobdingnagian or Lilliputian. Soon, I will be dead. Will I watch this episode of Friends for the fifty-second time, or write an essay about metaphysical poetry? The answer should be urgently clear in most cases. It is not, because understanding the proposition and living with its truth are as different from one another as watching a pornographic film and having enthusiastic sex with your favorite human. The virtual tour is not the tour. The Zoom meeting is not the meeting. At best, it is a simulacrum, a copy without an original. We must cherish the real.
Marvell's speaker begins by delineating an ideal scenario, in which he would spend weeks worshipping every molecule of the object of his affections, from her adenoids to her ankles. If they were immortal, her coyness would not be problematic. The rascals responsible for The Cambridge English Dictionary define coyness as follows: "behavior in which someone is or pretends to be shy, or like a child," which at least captures the subtle notion of seeming reluctant while preserving the impression that consent is possible, if not imminent. Ours is an age in which subtlety and ambiguity of this kind have been burned at the puritanical stake. It ought to be noted that most puritans are nice, well-meaning people until the torches are ignited.
Nonetheless, the ideal scenario is carefully summoned, and it includes the idea that they could wander the whole earth together, the speaker and his coy mistress: from the shores of the sacred Ganges in India to the Humber, on the east coast of England. The speaker also stipulates that they would have all of time in which to enjoy the courtship, from an antediluvian decade to the apocalyptic conversion of the Jews. These Biblical, temporal bookends are as fixed and discernible as the two rivers. We could wander the whole terrestrial sphere for millennia and I wouldn't get impatient with your flirtatious shyness, even if it began before Noah started pairing primates and pigeons, and carried on to a terrifying unveiling of the end that seems nearer every time we look at the news.
The trouble, according to the speaker, is that a metaphor gets in the way. A representation of the shocking onrush of oblivion: "But at my back I always hear /Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;" which runs clean through the hypothetical heaven constructed in the first stanza and leaves behind, "Deserts of vast eternity." There I was, quietly grateful for the fact that my ears were visible again thanks to my intrepid stylist, and the smirking child of my erstwhile stylist let me hear the neigh, and the nay, of the steed that pulls that chariot: "You have been following this routine for so long," I was obliged to think to myself, "that this person has had time to be conceived, gestate, enter the breathing world, mature, and stand here ominously talking about the contents of your file." Oh, fuck.
When Marvell's poem is called "metaphysical," most assume that this means it belongs next to remaindered copies of The Celestine Prophecy and other anodyne, asinine stuff. It's not that kind of metaphysical. Metaphysics comes after, and is a precondition for the possibility of our understanding of our predicament thanks to, physics. Physics tells us about how objective reality is structured and functions. Metaphysics helps us to understand that and its meaning for beings like us. Marvell's poem doesn't show us a menu. It makes us eat the truth about reality and our experience of it raw.
It's a risky, provocative shift of rhetorical tactics: "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," which is ugly and uncompromising and exactly true. Chastity may be venerated by some, but just imagine the nauseous scenario summoned here for a second and you will get the idea that if we wait for too long, we will lose the ability to wait. Rotting is all we will be good for then. I do not think I alone deferred and procrastinated and postponed incessantly at the height of the plague: "When things are back to normal, I will do x and y and z." How many of those variables have content for us now, and how many have been made into action? Marvell's persona won't let his coy mistress, or his reader, elude that uncomfortable question.
Now then, while we are alive, we ought to get busy. It's important to note that the line, "And while thy willing soul transpires," does not imply, crazily, that said soul is an event, i.e., that it happens in some form or fashion. Instead, the implication of the verb is that it passes, "to pass in the form of a vapor from a living body," with thanks to those Cambridge rogues again. Your soul is practically oozing out of your pores in youth. The gap between thought and action is miniscule. That staircase will be much more intimidating at fifty than it was at twenty-five. Do not squander vigor while it lasts.
The final couplet is as elegant an indictment of boredom as I have read: "Thus, though we cannot make our sun /Stand still, yet we will make him run." Time has an obstinately objective aspect. Whether you are in Dublin or Dubai, a minute contains sixty seconds and an hour sixty minutes. The hands of the clock describe the same orbit, no matter what our will. But, when we are thoroughly engrossed, when we are doing something that everything else we do is done for, then boredom becomes impossible. We cannot change the pace of public time. Private time, though, our time, can be exponentially accelerated. Just consider it for a moment: how fleeting are the moments you relish as compared to the plodding eternity of the things you are duty bound to suffer through? While we are breathing, shouldn't we savor private time more avidly?
Much more could be said about every word of this extraordinary poem, but I think you get the idea: I am grateful for the stunning collision with my own mortality that I experienced thanks to that trivial haircut, and for the conjuration of the laughing ghost of Marvell that ensued. I do not think I will ever read, or teach, this poem the same way again.
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