‘From His Coy Mistress’ offers a female-centred riposte to a canonical, male-authored poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, by Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). Marvell was one of the group now known as the Metaphysical poets, whose works are marked by ingenious conceits (improbably extended metaphors), wit, and a concern with both philosophical subjects and the body. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ dramatises the plea of a male speaker to a female addressee, urging her to consummate their love affair. Using all the arts of wit and persuasion at the poet’s disposal, the speaker pushes what was then a conventional plea to new, imaginative and metaphorical heights. The gender imbalance inherent to Marvell’s poem – and the tradition from which it stems – is that while the implicitly male speaker is passionate and prolix, his female addressee remains chaste and silent: we never hear her point of view. Indeed, the creativity of his poetic speech is perhaps occasioned by – necessitated by – her silence. Writing back from the point of view of the ‘Coy Mistress’, Deryn Rees-Jones uses a historical guise in order to insert her own voice and, in a related sense, female desire, back into English-language literary tradition, in an encounter that is cerebral, spiritual and erotic at the same time.
Marvell’s poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener (usually not the reader). It is important to note that with this form, the poet traditionally speaks with a theatrically assumed voice, not her/his own. ‘From His Coy Mistress’ pays testimony to the dramatic monologue, particularly when the speaker invokes and addresses the desired ‘you’ in the third stanza. In her book Consorting with Angels, Rees-Jones stresses ‘the importance of the dramatic monologue to the woman poet’s textual self-making’. Here, she can be seen to shape a space and an identity for the woman poet, her body and desires, precisely by putting on another voice: as Rees-Jones writes, ‘the monologue seeks to embody the speaker while also saying that the presence of this body is not the poet’s’.’
Yet, while Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ frequently uses the first person plural, ‘we’, to persuasive effect, Rees-Jones’s poem far more often uses ‘I’ – and never ‘we’. This suggests that her poem is more about an encounter between difference, a crossing and mixing of ‘I’ and ‘you’, rather than an idealised ‘we’. But this strategic use of the first person singular also places the text within a more self-reflective, lyrical idiom, which serves as a vehicle for exploring how desire and passion work both to construct, and to unsettle (and ultimately transform) the self.
The poem’s visual form oscillates between solidity and fragmentation. While stanzas one and three are of a similar shape (arranged regularly in four lines, or quatrains), stanza two has an uneven number of lines, and stanza four is essentially broken into two, with a space between the last two lines and the rest of the text. While most lines are of similar length, conspicuously shorter ones convey, perhaps, moments of difficulty or impasse in the expression of the body’s emotion – a kind of shrinking in on the self. The final two lines isolate an ecstatic moment of opening out and proximity, where the speaker sings along with the sensual world. Rees-Jones eschews Marvell’s neatly rhyming couplets for a looser form, in which rhyme and sound correspondences link the different stanzas, and often incongruous ideas, together.
 Deryn Rees-Jones, Consorting with Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets (Highsgreen, Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2005), p. 13.
 Rees-Jones, Consorting with Angels, p. 14.