How might one explain, in simple terms, each line of the first ten lines of Andrew Marvell's poem "On a Drop of Dew"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Andrew Marvell’s poem titled “On a Drop of Dew” might be considered a “metaphysical” poem for a number of different reasons. In the first place, the poem is decidedly philosophical as it elaborately compares a drop of dew to the human soul. Secondly, the poem develops that comparison for many lines, in the manner of a metaphysical “conceit,” or extended analogy.

The first ten lines of the poem might be paraphrased and analyzed as follows:

See how the orient dew,

[Look, reader, how the dew that appears in the east] Notice how this line directly addresses readers, already encouraging them both to look and to begin contemplating.

Shed from the bosom of the morn   

[has fallen from the breast of the morning] Notice the pleasant associations of the imagery here.


   Into the blowing roses,

[into the blossoming roses] The roses here seem to symbolize the beauty of the physical world.


Yet careless of its mansion new,

[but it pays no attention to its large and impressive new home and seems not even to care for it] The word “mansion” once again suggests the splendor of the earth.


For the clear region where ’twas born 

[because the pure, spotless place where it originated] The language here begins to associate the sky with heavenly virtue and heavenly beauty.


   Round in itself incloses:

[is enclosed within the drop of dew in the sense that the dew reflects the sky.] Circles and spheres were often associated with perfection and with God during the middle ages and the Renaissance.


   And in its little globe’s extent,

[And the drop of dew, like a small sphere or a small world] Once more, imagery of perfection is used.


Frames as it can its native element.

[seems to contain within itself the sky and air where it was born.] The idea that the drop of dew seems to contain the sky foreshadows the later idea that the human body does contain a soul. In each case, something that is itself attractive contains something more ethereal but also something that is important and attractive in its own way.


   How it the purple flow’r does slight,   

[Look how the drop of dew seems to ignore the beautiful flower on which it rests or which blooms nearby]  The fact that the flower is purple may associate it with the color of royalty. In any case, the flower is beautiful, as earthly things often are, but the drop of dew pays no attention to such merely worldly beauty.


      Scarce touching where it lies,  

[The drop of dew barely has physical contact with the plant on which it now rests] The language here again foreshadows the later idea that even though the soul inhabits the body, its connection with the body is merely temporary and not especially strong or enduring.

In short, everything in the first ten lines of the poem prepares for the poem’s later development.  Just as the drop of dew lands temporarily on the rose bush, so (the poem will later suggest) the human soul takes up a very brief residence on the earth and within the human body.  The earth may seem attractive in many ways, but the soul contains within itself an image of the heaven from which it came. Just as the drop of dew seems to pay little attention to the rose bush, despite the bush’s attractiveness, so the human soul is more focused on God and heaven than on its earthly habitation and surroundings.