The lines of poetry that Henry quotes are from Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” (1681). In the poem, a man addresses the young object of his desire and tries to convince her that the social norms that keep her chaste are unimportant in the face of inevitable death. Life is painfully short, the poem suggests; whatever pleasure can be had should be had regardless of fussy, moralistic traditions. The poem plays an important role in shaping the farewell scene between Catherine and Henry. In their hotel room, Catherine says that she feels like a whore; even though she feels no need to marry—and has asked Henry how they could possibly be more married than they are now—the strict moral expectations of society still exert a force strong enough to vex her happiness. She quickly overcomes this feeling and actually wants to do “something really sinful” with Henry. A sin, she imagines, would bring them closer together by throwing them into sharper contrast with the outside world. As she says at the racetrack, she feels she is at her best and least lonely when she and Henry are separated from everyone around them. The final lines of Marvell’s poem evoke this aspect of Catherine and Henry’s relationship:
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Through the iron gates of life.
Given the lack of comforts in a world so ravaged by war, it is little wonder that Catherine wants to unite with Henry against life’s harsh realities.
Henry’s discussion with the priest confirms the difficulties of living in a world in which war has crumbled many of the foundations—God, love, honor—that help to structure human life and give it meaning. Those of Hemingway’s characters who have not yet lost all sense of these beliefs, as Rinaldi has, try to make up for the loss in other ways, as Catherine does. Henry’s conversation with the priest illustrates the numb horror one feels when there is nothing left in which to believe. Without a belief in God or a commitment to the war in which he is fighting, Henry can safely say that he believes only in the oblivion that sleep brings.