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'To His Coy Mistress' by Andrew Marvell, 'Cousin Kate' by Christina Rossetti and 'The Beggar Women' by William King - Consider the social and cultural contexts in which the poems are set.

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Introduction

Explore and compare the ways in which the poets present the relationships between men and women in 'To His Coy Mistress' by Andrew Marvell, 'Cousin Kate' by Christina Rossetti and 'The Beggar Women' by William King. Consider the social and cultural contexts in which the poems are set. For most pre-twentieth century writers, love and marriage provide ways to talk about relationships between men and women. Marvell, Rossetti and King, however, ignore marriage in favour of sex, and love, in varying degrees, is sometimes a negative force. Men, in all societies and contexts, can be seen to dominate, but how effective that domination is, depends entirely upon the women involved. Andrew Marvell, who wrote 'To His Coy Mistress' during the political unrest of civil war, creates a world in which relationships between the men and women are extremely problematic. Fifty years before, a female monarch, who held the power of life and death over her subjects, challenged the ideas of gender that attempted to describe women as a silent ornament. Consequently, the poem tries to make sense of the ambiguities of male-female relationships, whilst also strengthening emerging motions of romantic love. The title of the poem declares the adoration and sexual desire of its persona for his mistress. "Coy" implies that she is shy and innocent, a passive figure, hunted and owned by his "amorous birds of prey". ...read more.

Middle

But, unlike the 'Coy Mistress', the real mistress of 'Cousin Kate' is made 'unclean' by the dishonour of being an unmarried mother in Victorian society. Women seem to be even more trapped by men. The most notable feature of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' is the way in which it makes women ornaments to be adored. Women in 'Cousin Kate' are divided into two categories: those who men adore and those who adore men. Kate is adored as 'Lady'; the mistress of Marvell's poem is similarly praised, 'For, Lady, you deserve this state.' The reason for this adulation seems to be that both women resist male advances. Kate is 'bound...with his ring.' 'Bound' suggests trapped, and that marriage is a prison. But this is still socially preferable to being 'an outcast thing', the judgment for women who lose their virginity outside of marriage. The language that Rossetti uses to describe sexuality is very similar to that of Marvell. In 'Cousin Kate,' the man 'lure[s]' the woman, which suggests that she is his bait or victim. He can 'win her', like 'To His Coy Mistress' and the 'devour[ing]' bird of prey. The act of sex seems to assert male supremacy. Perhaps this is why Marvell seemed so keen to bed his mistress! But whereas man's desperation for sex gave the woman power, here, he wears the woman, '...Like a silken knot, He changed me like a glove;' She is reduced to a 'play thing', a child's toy who has no importance and is easily forgotten. ...read more.

Conclusion

Because he is a gentleman, we would expect his behaviour to be noble and morally upstanding. But the violence of his language, 'throw[ing]... down', 'break[ing] backs' etc suggests that his actions are much more 'lower class' than those of the beggar woman. The extreme nature of his actions show a desperate attempt to control this wayward woman, but the excessive language hints that this control is failing. So much so in fact that the woman takes over the language of the hunt, luring him, like the lord to the cottage maiden in Rossetti, and the poet to the mistress in Marvell, into the woods. The relationship between men and women seems to have been reversed. She is no adored ornament. The social and cultural contexts of all the poems discussed effectively silence their women, placing them on a pedestal far removed from the society of dominant men. Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' adores that woman, but his adoration serves to reduce her to physical beauty only. Rossetti's protagonist is equally silenced, trapped by the shame of being an unmarried mother, at the mercy of the man she loves. Although the voice is female, she has no control or power. It is William King's 'The Beggar Woman' who offers the greatest challenge. Financially independent, she needs no man, and her relationships with them are based on 'trade' rather than love, need and marriage. The relationships between men and women are always problematic and never easily defined. ...read more.

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