Old Creepy Poetry
Not long ago, I discovered a poem by Sir Robert Aytoun titled “To His Coy Mistress.” I was familiar with–as most people with English degrees are, I assume–with Andrew Marvell’s poem of the same name, but had never read Aytoun’s. The anthology I use for my Interpretation of Poetry classes has both poems side-by-side in the section titled “Poets In Dialogue.” I don’t know if Marvell was responding to Aytoun’s poem–the identical titles certainly makes it look like that’s a possibility, but the differences between the poems is so great that I wonder if it wasn’t just a coincidence. (I’m sure someone has already studied this and has an answer; I haven’t really bothered to look.)
Aytoun’s poem is, in a word, creepy. There’s really no other way to put it, I’m afraid. I know he was working from the courtly love tradition, but that, to me, only explains the creepiness; it doesn’t justify or ameliorate it any. The speaker in this poem comes off as the kind of guy who, today, would deserve a restraining order placed against him. Follow me below the fold for more.
Aytoun’s speaker is basically playing on a variant of a “no really means yes” argument. He opens the poem with this:
What others doth discourage and dismay
Is unto me a pastime and a play.
I sport in her denials and do know
Women love best that does love least in show.
He has this certainty that women are never honest about the ways they feel about men. It’s always a game with them, he says, and the more they deny they care for him, the more he is insistent that they love him.
His delusion gets even worse in lines 10-14:
So from her coldness I do strike desire.
She, knowing this perhaps, resolves to try
My faith and patience, offering to deny
Whate’er I ask of her, that I may be
More taken with her, for her slighting me.
The woman in this poem, more properly called an object of obsession at this point, is in a no-win situation here. If she gives in, he’s won, and it seems fairly obvious at this point that she doesn’t care for him. But the more she refuses, the more he’s convinced that she’s doing it just to toy with him. He compares her to an angler in lines 15-20, and hinself to the fish that cannot help but take the bait.
Creeped out yet? This is the same kind of “reasoning” that stalkers use to justify their obsessions with celebrities, or with exes. “She” (and it’s almost always a she) “is leading me on,” the stalker says. “We are meant to be together.”
And Aytoun’s speaker goes there, most notably in the last six lines of the poem:
I’ll tie her eyes with lines, her ears with moans;
Her marble heart I’ll pierce with hideous groans
That neither eyes, ears, heart shall be at rest
Till she forsake her sire to love me best;
Nor will I raise my siege nor leave my field
Till I have made my valiant mistress yield.
That’s a threat, at least to my contemporary ear. Aytoun’s speaker is not going to let this woman go. I hope this was all an invention.