Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2225
Andrew Marvell’s poem titled “On a Drop of Dew” is a work that helps explain why Marvell (1621-78) is often considered a “metaphysical” poet, even though he lived much later than such writers as John Donne (1572-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633), who are normally considered the first “metaphysical” writers. As the term implies, “metaphysical” poets are frequently thought of as writers for whom philosophical ideas were at least as important as strong emotions. Indeed, T. S. Eliot, the great twentieth-century poet, praised the metaphysical authors as writers who could think as richly as they felt and whose thoughts were not divorced from their feelings. It is not surprising, therefore, that one especially typical trait of metaphysical poetry is the “conceit”—that is, the ability to take one image or metaphor and explore its numerous facets and implications over many lines. Developing a conceit involves clever wit and sustained thought, and both of these qualities are on display in Marvell’s lyric. This poem, which compares the soul to a drop of dew, is “metaphysical” in every sense of the word.
The speaker of Marvell’s poem begins with an attention-grabbing command: “See how the orient dew” (1; emphasis added). The speaker is directly addressing the reader here, calling the reader’s attention to a small aspect of nature that might easily be overlooked. The drop of dew is described as “orient” (1) in the sense that it appears (and is visible) as the sun rises in the east. The drop has been “Shed from the bosom of the morn” (2), language that describes nature in human terms, thus implying that physical nature and human beings have much in common. Nature is not presented here, as it often is in writings from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as cold, indifferent, or dead. Rather, humans and nature are in harmony, since (it will later be implied) God created both.
Nature, in fact, seems beautiful, as the reference to the “blowing” (that is, blooming) roses suggests. Yet the beauty of nature is as nothing (the poem later implies) to the beauty of heaven. One characteristic of this poem, in fact, is to make both the natural world and supernatural existence seem beautiful, although the latter is clearly exalted above the former. Rather than disparaging the physical world (as earlier, medieval poets might have done), Marvell’s poem celebrates the beauty of nature while also suggesting that such beauty can never completely satisfy the soul, which comes from God and wishes to return to God. Earth is a “mansion” (4), a word implying physical splendor and impressiveness, but an earthly mansion pales in comparison with heaven, the soul’s true and original home. The drop of dew is “careless of its mansion new” in the sense that it takes no great interest in its new, earthly surroundings.
The focus of the dew drop remains on the “clear” (that is, pure and unpolluted) “region where ’twas born” (5), and indeed it encloses that region “Round” within itself (6). Roundness and circularity were symbolic, in Marvell’s time, with perfection and with God. Just as God has no beginning and no end, so does a circle; just as God is complete and self-containing, so is a globe. The dew drop, then, both resembles and reflects the heavenly realm of perfection from which it came. It dropped to earth but lost none of its perfection or integrity as it descended. It is a “little globe” (7)—a little world, a microcosm, beautiful in itself but also reflecting and seeming to enclose a far greater beauty above and beyond itself.
The personified dew drop shows no interest in the beauty of the “purple flower” (9). It would be as if an alien being, dropped from another planet within a royal palace, cared nothing for the splendor of the palace but was focused entirely on returning to the home from which it came. Purple, of course, was a color strongly associated with royalty in Marvell’s time, and so the fact that the flower the dew drop ignores is “purple” in color does not seem insignificant. Lying on or near the purple flower, the drop of dew is described as “Scarce” (that is, scarcely) “touching where it lies” (10). It is as if the dew drop, having so recently appeared upon the earth, barely cares to have full or complete contact with its new, potentially polluting surroundings. (In the same way, the poem will later imply, the human soul finds itself on the earth but not really a part of the earth.)
Instead, the dew drop is depicted as “gazing back upon the skies” (11; emphasis added). The word “gazing” implies an intensity of focus and a length of duration that another word, such as “glancing” or even “looking,” would not have conveyed. The dew drop gazes at the skies because it is eager to return there. In the meantime, it
Shines with a mournful light,
Like its own tear
Because so long divided from the sphere. (12-14)
The word “Shines,” suggesting brightness, is no sooner presented than it is immediately qualified, modified, and diminished by the phrase “with a mournful light.” What might have seemed happy instead seems sad. Then, in the kind of use of paradox beloved by the metaphysical poets and utterly typical of their writings, the speaker describes the drop of dew as if it were shedding “its own tear.” In other words, it is as if a drop of water somehow sheds a drop of water. Such witty inventiveness helps characterize this poem as a typical piece of metaphysical poetry. The dew drop seems to weep because it has been “so long” (although actually very briefly) “divided from that sphere.” The sphere, again, is a symbol of God’s perfection, but notice the progression here: a sphere (heaven) produces a sphere (the dew drop), which in turn seems to produce yet another sphere (the metaphorical tear).
Finding itself on the leaf or flower of the rose bush, the dew drop “rolls” as if “Restless . . . and unsecure” (15). It experiences, in other words, the constant change, the never-ending mutability, that characterizes existence on earth. Metaphorically, it feels unstable and in danger, as does (or so the poem implies) any earthly being that possesses a soul. It fears (again, like the soul) that its time on earth will make it “impure” (16) or polluted. Only the “warm sun” (symbol of God) can protect it from such a fate by lifting it, through evaporation, back into “the skies” (that is, heaven). Notice that the sun (God) is not described as “hot” or “scorching”; instead, it is described as pleasingly, welcomingly “warm.” By describing the dew drop as “Restless,” rolling, and “Trembling” (15-16), the speaker chooses adjectives that can be read both literally and figuratively—applying both to a real dew drop and to the soul the dew drop symbolizes. The “warm sun” is said, with nice alliteration, to “pity” the “pain” of the dew drop. Once again, the sun is being associated with an attribute of God: not only can God lift souls away from the earth and back into heaven, but he can do so because he pities their suffering during their time in the world below (having himself, as Christ, experienced such suffering himself).
In line 19, the implied comparison between the dew drop and the soul finally becomes clear and explicit. For the first time the word “soul” is actually mentioned, and we suddenly realize that the first 18 lines of the poem have been functioning not only as part of a “conceit” but also as part of an “epic simile,” in which one thing is compared at great length to another thing. It now becomes obvious that all along the speaker has been comparing the drop of dew to
. . . that drop, that ray
Of the clear fountain of eternal day . . . (19-20)
The soul, in other words, is like a tiny drop of water from the much larger “fountain” that is God. By comparing God to a fountain, the speaker implies that God’s power is constant, that he is pure, sustaining, nurturing, and life-giving, and that his creativity flows incessantly. The drop of dew is tiny when compared to the ever-flowing waters of the fountain, just as any individual soul is tiny compared to the rich, unending creativity of the Creator himself. Yet the drop of dew is also compared to a “ray” of light. It is as if the speaker has difficulty conveying, in one simple image, the purity and beauty of something as ineffable as the soul. Thus the individual soul resembles both a single drop of water and a single ray of light from the heavenly source of all light.
The speaker next says that if the soul could be visible within “the human flower” in the same way that a dew drop is visible within a real flower, the soul would be remembering “still” (that is, both always and even now) “its former height” (21-22). The soul, like the dew drop, would be seen shunning “the sweet leaves and blossoms green” of the rose bush (that is, the human body (23). Significantly, the speaker of the poem does not condemn the body as ugly or baneful or as a source of pain. If the speaker had done that, then one could easily understand why the soul might be eager to leave the body. Instead, the speaker emphasizes the beauty and loveliness of the body, so that the soul’s eagerness to leave the body implies just how much more beautiful and appealing heaven must be. The soul recalls its former “height” (both physical and spiritual), and it is said to be “recollecting” (remembering, but also literally re-collecting) its own light by staying focused on God and heaven, just as the dew drop stays focused on the sky from which it came.
Just as the dew drop literally reflects the light of the sun and sky while taking the shape of a perfect circle, so the soul, “in its pure and circling thoughts” (25), reflects “The greater heaven in an heaven less” (26). By describing the soul’s thoughts as “circling,” the speaker implies that they have a central focus (God), so that just as the “greater heaven” revolves around God, so does the little piece of heaven that is each worshipful human soul. Circle imagery continues when the speaker says of the soul:
. . . how coy a figure wound,
Every way it turns away . . . . (25-26)
The word “coy” in this case means shyly reserved or retiring, as if the soul were a modest young woman rejecting the advances of the world. The speaker engages in splendid wordplay when he says of the soul that “Every way it turns away,” but such phrasing also suggests how closely the speaker has actually observed the dew drops to which souls are here compared. Dew drops can seem to move in any and every possible direction and can seem to reflect no image perfectly directly. In short, the phrasing of the poem is both clever and credible. No matter how the dew drop moves, its focus always seems pointed upward, as is also true of the soul. Like the dew drop, the human soul is always ready to re-ascend, to return from whence it came.
In the poem’s final lines, the speaker compares the soul to the “manna” sent by God in Exodus 16 to feed the needy Israelites as they fled from Egypt. As manna sustained the Hebrews, so the soul sustains the body. One might wonder why the speaker would suddenly switch from comparing the soul to a dew drop to comparing it to manna—until, that is, one remembers that in the Bible manna is described in ways that make it seem variously associated with dew. Thus, in Numbers 11:9, we are told that when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the MANNA fell upon it,” and in Exodus 16:13-14, the manna not only arrives with the dew but in some ways resembles it:
in the morning the dew lay round about the host.
And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.
In the poem’s final lines, the speaker once more compares the ascent of dew to the ascent of the soul, not only into heaven but into God—“th’ almighty son”—himself. Fittingly, the poem’s final word is “sun,” since the sun as symbol of God has in a sense been the focus of the entire work all along.
Much of the poem is written in iambic rhythm, in which odd syllables are accented and even syllables are accented. Consider, for instance, this passage:
How it the purple flow’r does slight,
Scarce touching where it lies,
But gazing back upon the skies . . .
Often, however, Marvell departs from this regular pattern, frequently to emphasize verbs placed at the very beginnings of lines, as in “See,” “Shed,” “Frames,” “Shines,” “Shuns,” and “Moving.” Key adjectives are often stressed in the same way, as in “Round,” “Restless,” “Trembling,” “Dark,” and “White.” Whereas the word “rebel” is an iamb, the word “Rebel” is a trochee, and Marvel shows his talent in using so-called “trochaic substitutions,” in which trochees replace the expect iambs, to give key words extra emphasis.