Andrew Marvell’s poem titled “On a Drop of Dew” is a work that helps explain why Marvell (1621-78) is often considered a “metaphysical” poet, even though he lived much later than such writers as John Donne (1572-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633), who are normally considered the first “metaphysical” writers. As the term implies, “metaphysical” poets are frequently thought of as writers for whom philosophical ideas were at least as important as strong emotions. Indeed, T. S. Eliot, the great twentieth-century poet, praised the metaphysical authors as writers who could think as richly as they felt and whose thoughts were not divorced from their feelings. It is not surprising, therefore, that one especially typical trait of metaphysical poetry is the “conceit”—that is, the ability to take one image or metaphor and explore its numerous facets and implications over many lines. Developing a conceit involves clever wit and sustained thought, and both of these qualities are on display in Marvell’s lyric. This poem, which compares the soul to a drop of dew, is “metaphysical” in every sense of the word.
The speaker of Marvell’s poem begins with an attention-grabbing command: “See how the orient dew” (1; emphasis added). The speaker is directly addressing the reader here, calling the reader’s attention to a small aspect of nature that might easily be overlooked. The drop of dew is described as “orient” (1) in the sense that it appears (and is visible) as the sun rises in the east. The drop has been “Shed from the bosom of the morn” (2), language that describes nature in human terms, thus implying that physical nature and human beings have much in common. Nature is not presented here, as it often is in writings from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as cold, indifferent, or dead. Rather, humans and nature are in harmony, since (it will later be implied) God created both.
Nature, in fact, seems beautiful, as the reference to the “blowing” (that is, blooming) roses suggests. Yet the beauty of nature is as nothing (the poem later implies) to the beauty of heaven. One characteristic of this poem, in fact, is to make both the natural world and supernatural existence seem beautiful, although the latter is clearly exalted above the former. Rather than disparaging the physical world (as earlier, medieval poets might have done), Marvell’s poem celebrates the beauty of nature while also suggesting that such beauty can never completely satisfy the soul, which comes from God and wishes to return to God. Earth is a “mansion” (4), a word implying physical splendor and impressiveness, but an earthly mansion pales in comparison with heaven, the soul’s true and original home. The drop of dew is “careless of its mansion new” in the sense that it takes no great interest in its new, earthly surroundings.
The focus of the dew drop remains on the “clear” (that is, pure and unpolluted) “region where ’twas born” (5), and indeed it encloses that region “Round” within itself (6). Roundness and circularity were symbolic, in Marvell’s time, with perfection and with God. Just as God has no beginning and no end, so does a circle; just as God is complete and self-containing, so is a globe. The dew drop, then, both resembles and reflects the heavenly realm of perfection from which it came. It dropped to earth but lost none of its perfection or integrity as it descended. It is a “little globe” (7)—a little world, a microcosm, beautiful in itself but also reflecting and seeming to enclose a far greater beauty above and beyond itself.
The personified dew drop shows no interest in the beauty of the “purple flower” (9). It would be as if an alien being, dropped from another planet within a royal palace, cared nothing for the splendor of the palace but was focused entirely on returning to the home from which it came. Purple, of course, was a color strongly associated with royalty in Marvell’s time, and so the fact that the flower the dew drop ignores is “purple” in color does not seem insignificant. Lying on or near the purple flower, the drop of dew is described as “Scarce” (that is, scarcely) “touching where it lies” (10). It is as if the dew drop, having so recently appeared upon the earth, barely cares to have full or complete contact with its new, potentially polluting surroundings. (In the same way, the poem will later imply, the human soul finds itself on the earth but not really a part of the earth.)
Instead, the dew drop is depicted as “gazing back upon the skies” (11; emphasis added). The word “gazing” implies an intensity of focus and a length of duration that another word, such as “glancing” or even “looking,” would not have conveyed. The dew drop gazes at the skies because it is eager to return there. In the meantime, it
Shines with a mournful light,
Like its own tear
Because so long divided from the sphere. (12-14)
The word “Shines,” suggesting brightness, is no sooner presented than it is immediately qualified, modified, and diminished by the phrase “with a mournful light.” What might have seemed happy instead seems sad. Then, in the kind of use of paradox beloved by the metaphysical poets and utterly typical of their writings, the speaker describes the...
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