The Definition of Love

by Andrew Marvell

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The Poem

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Andrew Marvell is classified as a Metaphysical poet. The Metaphysical poets flourished in the first half of the seventeenth century; their love poetry deals with the philosophical, not the romantic, aspects of being in love. The title suggests such an approach. The eight quatrains of the poem appear as an argument leading to the “therefore” of the final stanza, which has the terseness and compactness normally associated with definitions. It must be realized, however, that much Metaphysical poetry utilizes ambiguity, double meanings, and ironies. Here the term “definition” has its original Latin meaning of “restriction” as a double meaning. Marvell’s aim is to link the two meanings.

The poet speaks in the first person about “my love.” It soon becomes clear that “love” refers to the state, not the person, who is never described. The love poetry of the most famous Metaphysical poet, John Donne, works similarly; the object of love remains almost a fiction or cipher. Only in the first stanza is the object of love mentioned, in an enigmatic statement that “it” is “strange and high.” This suggests, perhaps, the aristocratic origins and uniqueness of the lady, as well as the quality of the poet’s love: It is elevated and outrageous that he should dare to love someone so nobly born.

He does not trace the birth of his love in terms of time and place but by abstractions, here personified as “Despair” and “Impossibility.” In the second stanza, “magnanimous Despair” is contrasted with “feeble Hope.” The oxymoron is at the heart of the poem—it could mean that, because of the lady’s nobility, he could never win her, but since his is a noble love, he has become greathearted (the literal meaning of magnanimous), the highest Aristotelian virtue. If he had merely hoped for a suitable partner, he would never have allowed himself to fall in love with the lady. All this gives the poem a definite locus. Other interpretations might suggest, more abstractly, that only despair can provide the strength and integrity of emotion that are necessary to break the lover out of a second-rate love. Idealism both elevates the love and proclaims its unattainability.

The third stanza introduces a third term—Fate. If it were up to love alone, the poet would soon consummate his love, but Fate will not allow this. The next stanza expands on this: Fate, like a jealous lover, wants to guard her own power. True fulfilled love not only has great power but also is self-determining—a theme John Donne explored in “The Ecstasy.” Donne believed that such a state was possible; Marvell does not.

The poem then sets up a series of extended images to explore this: In stanzas 5 and 6, the image is of the two lovers as two poles, on which “Love’s whole world” turns. They are never able to touch, because to do so would be to collapse that very world, to cause it to lose its dimensions. In stanza 7, the image becomes geometrical: Lesser loves may touch, as oblique lines will; perfect loves run as do parallel lines (perhaps as parallel circles, the typical symbol of perfection), and never join.

The final stanza does not continue these images but returns to the triad of love, Fate, and the lovers. Their fate is, paradoxically, always to be separated, yet to be in true “conjunction of the Mind.”

Forms and Devices

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The tone of the poem is humorous and ironic, only occasionally jarring the reader with the passion behind such words as “iron wedges,” “crowds,” “giddy heaven,” or “some new convulsion.” Marvell’s control here is similar to...

(This entire section contains 506 words.)

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that in his “To His Coy Mistress”; there is less violence here, however, and the humor is therefore greater.

The tone is established in two main ways: first, through the very tight, economic verse form that Marvell learned from the classical poets (Marvell was an excellent Latinist). The meter is a very regular iambic tetrameter, with accentuated alternating rhymes. The feel is of couplet form, with heavy punctuation at the end of every second line. Each stanza is a complete sentence. The effect is of tight control, an economy that belongs to the enigmatic and the paradoxical. The meter is able to pass from simple monosyllables to technical and abstract polysyllables with fluency and sharpness. The form is so “defined,” so “restricted,” that it invites the ironic awareness of the tension between formal control and the situational powerlessness of the poet. The words are mathematically placed in terms of balance and closure, yet the sense is of inconclusiveness, even failure. The tone is thus delicately balanced, tongue-in-cheek. Marvell’s sheer dexterity can be seen when one compares this poem to one by another Metaphysical poet, Abraham Cowley. Cowley’s “Impossibilities” plays on the same ideas, but it does so clumsily and obviously. The most marked comparison, however, is with Donne’s “The Ecstasy”: Donne uses a similar verse form, but his poem is committed, flexible in its energies and celebration of union, while Marvell’s is ironically controlled, ambiguous, refusing to acknowledge passion.

The second way in which tone is established is by means of wit. Much has been written on the Metaphysical concept of wit. It has to do with the quick play of the mind, the ability to be intelligent and poetic at the same time and, above all, to achieve new insight by means of joining the most unlikely concepts. The imagery that is the expression of this “conjunction of the Mind” is termed a conceit. Marvell’s conceits are geometrical and astronomical. While the latter may be associated in readers’ minds with love, the former certainly is not. Marvell, who draws upon neo-Platonic symbolism and correspondences of geometrical forms and types of love, uses them so easily that one is unaware of his erudition. His use of astronomy to suggest “star-crossed lovers” provides a new dimension in its conflation of astrological and astronomical elements into a modern cosmology of poles, axes, and “planispheres.”

His contrast of Hope’s “tinsel wing” with Fate’s “iron wedges” is also striking, as is the personification of Fate jealously squeezing itself between the lovers, suggesting something claustrophobic. Sometimes the conceits do not logically fit together—there are parallel lines and conjunctions; Fate comes between the lovers, yet “Love’s whole world” also occupies the same space. The humorous tone allows such discrepancies—indeed, they become part of the joke.