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Lines 11-18 of Andrew Marvell’s poem “On a Drop of Dew” might be paraphrased and explicated as follows:
But gazing back upon the skies,
[But the drop of dew looks back up toward the sky from which it came] Here and elsewhere in the poem, the speaker treats the drop of dew as if it were alive and as if it were a person. Drops of dew cannot literally gaze into the sky, but the personification here helps prepare for the later point in the poem when the analogy between the drop of dew and the human soul, descended from heaven, will be made explicit.
Shines with a mournful light,
[The drop of dew is illuminated by a kind of light that makes it look as if it is feeling some kind of sorrow.] Once again, the drop of dew is being personified. Drops of dew cannot literally feel sorrow, so the speaker is once more using the personification to foreshadow the later explicit comparison of the drop of dew to the human soul.
Like its own tear,
[The drop of dew almost seems to be weeping] The idea that a drop of water might seem to shed a tear is typical of the kinds of paradox in which “metaphysical” poets such as Andrew Marvell and John Donne delighted. Such paradoxes display the wit of the poet: how many people could imagine a drop of water weeping? Once again, personification is heavily emphasized.
Because so long divided from the sphere.
[The drop of dew seems to be weeping because it has been separated for such a long time from the sky from which it came.] This line displays more wit. The drop of dew is described as a sphere of water separated from the even greater sphere of the sky or the heavens. Ironically, the drop of dew has been resting on the rose bush for a very brief time, but the speaker imagines that that length of time seems very long to the dew drop. This phrasing perhaps implies that even though human life can seem long, our souls actually inhabit our bodies for what seems, from a divine perspective, a mere blink of the eye.
Restless it rolls and unsecure,
[The drop of due, as it lies, perhaps, on a leaf of the rose bush, moves around on the leaf, because it is not attached.] This line may allude to the common Renaissance concern with mutability, or the constant change and instability typical of the earth. The speaker uses triple alliteration effectively when he says “Restless it rolls.”
Trembling lest it grow impure,
[The drop of dew is worried that it may lose its purity because of its contact with the leaf, symbol of the material world.] Just as the soul fears spiritual impurity, so the dew drop fears physical impurity.
Till the warm sun pity its pain,
[The drop of dew rests on the rose bush until the warm sun, taking pity on the drop’s sorrow] The sun was often used in medieval and Renaissance poetry as a symbol of God, and it is used that way in this poem. The pity that the sun feels for the drop of dew resembles the pity that God feels for the human soul, since God knows that the human soul wants to return to heaven, from which it came.
And to the skies exhale it back again.
[The drop of dew is taken back up into the sky by the process of evaporation.] Just as the sun evaporates the drop of dew, so God will lift the human soul back up into the heavens and make it one with himself again.
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