The Definition of Love

by Andrew Marvell

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

Marvell’s ironic tone and paradoxical discourse have led to a variety of interpretations, ranging from seeing the poem as a courtly, exaggerated compliment to an aristocratic lady (as were some of Donne’s poems) to seeing it as an allegorical expression of the Platonic concept of divine love. The most obvious way to view the poem, however, is as a witty but nevertheless committed exploration of the ontology of love. The poem does this in two ways; first, by setting out the matrices of love and destiny in order to find the impossibility of arriving at an equation that will balance desire and fulfillment; and second, by examining the inner contradictions of the notion of pure love.

John Donne’s poetry speaks of lovers who are able to create their own destiny. Even when external forces create a separation, the ontology of union is not affected—as in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” By contrast, Marvell suggests that it is not only external forces (perhaps of degree or rank) that prevent union but also the nature of the human condition. Ultimately, destiny is “how things are.” In other poems, Marvell holds a Christian Platonistic view that sees man as fallen and separated from perfection. Fate is thus God’s punishment, the refusal to allow Edenic perfection for the lovers and the fact that nature is now structured for imperfection. To attain perfection would be “unnatural,” destructive; Earth might “some new convulsion tear” (the first convulsion was the Edenic fall).

This leads to the poem’s use of inner contradiction. The conceit of parallelism highlights this: Perfect parallels, by their very nature, cannot join. This is not some arbitrary external force; it is at the heart of the logical structure of things. These must exist in tension, the unresolvability of which produces, paradoxically, both despair and magnanimity. If the minds are perfectly in tune, Platonically, the bodies must stay apart—this sentiment is also expressed in Marvell’s “Young Love.” This is Marvell’s choice. If bodies come together, perfection is lost, and their love ceases to be pure. One cannot have it both ways. This is the human restriction.

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