In comparing and contrasting Donne and Marvell, we are dealing both with the differences in content and idea between the two poets' works, and also with their differences in technique and the manner in which they employ conceits and other "metaphysical" poetic devices.
Donne's thought ranges from extreme cynicism to fervent religiosity. His view of women has, with some justice, been considered rather sexist even for his own time. In "The Indifferent," he writes: "I can love brown and fair, / Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays. . . . I can love her, and her, and you, and you, / I can love any, so she be not true." In "The Flea": "Mark but this flea, and mark in this / How little that which thou deni'st me is. / It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be."
No one can deny the cleverness and musical quality of these verses. In other poems, there is a more loving tone, such as in "Sweetest love, I do not go for weariness of thee," with, as C.S. Lewis remarked, its "broken, haunted melody." Donne is probably best known, however, for those poems in which there is an elaborately developed conceit, a comparison in which a likeness is discovered in two completely unlike things most people would never have even thought to compare: "Let me pour forth / My tears before thy face whilst I stay here, / For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear, / And by this mintage they are something worth / For thus they be / Pregnant of thee." No one but Donne (or now, nobody who hasn't read this poem!) would think of teardrops as coins. Yet, Donne's wording is so natural, so conversational and effortless, that the reader is drawn along into thinking that all of it makes perfect sense.
Donne's religious poetry sometimes seems anomalous given the worldliness of his verse dealing with women and love. In the Holy Sonnets the tone is arresting and apocalyptic: "What if this present were the world's last night?"; "At the round earth's imagined corners blow / Your trumpets angels, and arise, arise." Donne makes no effort to deny his own sins, as in the "Hymn to God the Father": "Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun / Which was my sin, though it were done before?" But even here, by punning on his name, piety does not repress the desire for cleverness which could be considered flippant if we looked at this without realizing that it is simply part of Donne's style:"When thou hast done, thou hast not done / For I have more."
Andrew Marvell, writing several decades later, deals also with love and with the spiritual world, using techniques he obviously learned from Donne but altering them to create his own personal style. "To His Coy Mistress" shows him as a woman's man, like Donne, but the tone is gentler, less sharp and direct than Donne's. "Had we but world enough and time," carries with it a softness, an understanding attitude that Donne lacks. The effect in Marvell is more passive, almost dreamy: "We would sit down and think which way / To walk and pass our long love's day."
If we can agree that Marvell has in common with Donne the use of conceits, saying that in the grave "Then worms will try / That long preserv'd virginity," and the use of unusual and sometimes exotic imagery, "Thou by the Indian Ganges side should'st rubies find," his approach is still low-key by comparison with Donne's. In the closing stanza of "The Definition of Love": "Therefore the love which us doth bind / But fate so enviously debars, / Is the conjunction of the mind / And opposition of the stars," Marvell, like Donne, builds a conceit based on specialized knowledge, in this case using terms from astronomy. But the words are so easily and conversationally stated—to an even greater degree than in Donne—that the reader does not even notice that science is being brought into play.
In general Marvell's verse is milder, more contemplative and passively reflective than Donne's. He lacks the implicit anger of Donne and tends to state things in a wistful, almost regretful way, as in "The Garden": "How vainly men themselves amaze / To win the palm, the oak or bays." What the two poets have most in common is a focus on love and an ability to express complex ideas and comparisons in natural, conversational language which we can still relate to nearly four hundred years later. But their differences, as we have outlined them above, are ones rooted in their different personalities, as with all poets and all artists.