The Definition of Love

by Andrew Marvell

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Can you help me find a unique starting point for my M.A. English paper on unrequited love in Andrew Marvell's "The Definition of Love" and one of his Mower poems?

I'm writing a 10–12 page paper for M.A. English class, and I am struggling to get started. It's on Andrew Marvell, and I want to focus on "The Definition of Love." Maybe I'll compare it to one of the Mower poems and focus on unrequited love.

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I would argue that it is not exactly unrequited love described in "The Definition of Love." The speaker does not actually state that his love is not returned. It is, rather, the mechanism of "fate" that prevents the love from being consummated. The last stanza is as clear on this point as it is famous for its distinctive metaphor:

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
In saying that "love" binds him with his beloved, the speaker is acknowledging, arguably, that she returns his love. The whole poem is a series of Marvell's own brand of metaphysical conceits: metaphors in which things most people would not even think of comparing are successfully linked. Interestingly, the delight Marvell seems to take in such imagery belies any suffering the speaker feels over the separation from his beloved:
And therefore her decrees of steel Us as the distant poles have plac’d, (Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel) Not by themselves to be embrac’d; Unless the giddy heaven fall, And earth some new convulsion tear; And, us to join, the world should all Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
Marvell invents a word which is an oxymoron, or self-contradiction: plainisphere. The poem as a whole is self-contradictory in mood. It's about despair, but the reader needs, as always, to pay close attention not only to content but to the tone in which the ideas are expressed. There is a playful, light-hearted quality about this, as with most of Marvell's better known poems. To understand "The Definition of Love," I would look not so much at the "Mower" poems as a point of comparison but at the much better-known "To His Coy Mistress." In the latter, the speaker's love is again not depicted as actually unrequited, but simply unconsummated because of the young lady's "coyness." The gentle, almost amused tone of the speaker is the opposite of what one would expect from an unsuccessful wooer. All along he seems confident, and he concludes the poem with lines that indicate not that things might eventually work between himself and the lady, but that they will:
Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball, And tear our pleasures with rough strife Through the iron gates of life: Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run.
One might also contrast "The Definition of Love" with similar works by the other Metaphysical poets, such as Donne. Marvell has little of the acerbic and even somewhat nasty tone Donne affects in his attitude to women, though both poets use imagery that a slightly prudish reader might consider obscene, albeit typical of the free-wheeling atmosphere that at times prevailed in the seventeenth century in English literature.

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