The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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 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,...

(The entire section is 506 words.)