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A Short Analysis of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’

A reading of a classic Marvell poem

‘The Definition of Love’ is a poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-78), an English poet who lived in Hull and whose work is closely associated with the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century. In this post we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘The Definition of Love’, paying particular attention to its language, meaning, and themes.

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.

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.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

We’ll begin with a short summary or paraphrase of ‘The Definition of Love’ before we move to analyse it. Marvell’s speaker announces that the love he feels is rare because it was born of despair – despair of knowing that the one he loved would never be his (‘Impossibility’). Indeed, only Despair, rather than Hope, could have shown him what it was like to experience ‘divine’ love – in other words, the truly special love is that which is hopeless, because we know we cannot have the person we desire. Hopeless love often strikes us so much more powerfully than hopeful love where we think something may come of our desire. (This leads Marvell to use the wonderful oxymoron ‘Magnanimous Despair’: Despair is magnanimous, i.e. generous, because it alone can allow him to feel what it is to love.) Marvell’s speaker blames Fate (which, like Hope and Despair, is capitalised and, so, personified) for this: he could easily obtain his love, but Fate – jealously realising that he and his lover would be perfect for each other – keeps intervening and preventing such a match from ever taking place. Though the two lovers are made for each other, they will never be together. Marvell’s title says it all: ‘The Definition of Love’ is not just about defining what love is, but about understanding how definite it is, how clearly marked out as hopeless and lost.

This much constitutes a brief summary of the poem; but how should we interpret it? What does ‘The Definition of Love’ mean, and what is Marvell saying about love? Marvell likens the course of love to geometric lines, arguing that ‘oblique’ lines (i.e. lines which slant, or are not parallel) often meet, just as imperfect lovers will often find their

by Unknown artist,painting,circa 1655-1660

by Unknown artist,painting,circa 1655-1660

match; but lines which are truly ‘parallel’ will never meet (since they will never converge), and so it is with perfect true lovers – despite their love being eternal (just as the parallel lines are ‘infinite’) and perfect, these lovers will never meet and become an item. Their love will remain unfulfilled.

We started off by mentioning that Andrew Marvell is associated with the Metaphysical Poets, and ‘The Definition of Love’ offers a similarly ‘Metaphysical’ idea of love to that seen in, say, John Donne’s poetry (see, for instance, ‘The Good-Morrow’). For instance, like Donne, Marvell uses the idea of the world as a metaphor for his relation to his lover: in the fifth stanza of ‘The Definition of Love’, Marvell likens himself and his lover to the two poles of the Earth – North and South Poles – which have the whole world between them, and are themselves destined never to meet. The world, in other words, will always get in the way and prevent them from meeting. They are, if you will, polar opposites – except, of course, this is only true in spatial or geographical terms (in that Fate keeps them separate) because, in terms of temperament and desire, Marvell says, they are a perfect match. As he concludes, their love is based on ‘conjunction of the mind’ (i.e. of one mind) but, sadly, ‘opposition of the stars’. Their temperaments deem them well-suited; fate dooms them to remain apart.

This idea of the two lovers being like opposite poles of a world is neatly developed – as so often in Metaphysical poetry – through the (impossible and purely hypothetical) notion of the world being reshaped into a ‘planisphere’ (i.e. a two-dimensional depiction of the Earth on a flat surface). In the sixth stanza, Marvell argues that if the heaven fell and the Earth was torn apart, then he and his lover, those two ‘poles’, might meet – but it’s not very likely that the heavens are going to fall and the Earth be torn in two. In other words, there isn’t much hope for the two lovers. (Marvell wrote another poem titled ‘The Unfortunate Lover’, which nicely complements ‘The Definition of Love’.)

Elsewhere, too, the metaphors Marvell uses – metaphors being the stock-in-trade of Metaphysical poetry – give an extra twist of the knife to the unfortunate plight of the poet’s speaker. So, in the poem’s opening stanza,

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

We cannot be sure at first whether ‘My love’ refers to a person or a thing, namely to the speaker’s lover, or to the abstract love that he feels for someone (who may or may not be his lover). In the opening line of another poem that begins with the words ‘My love’, namely Robert Burns’s ‘My love’s like a red, red rose’, we apprehend that the ‘My love’ being referred to there is Burns’s lover rather than merely his feeling of love. In Marvell’s opening line, ‘My love is of a birth as rare’, we remain unsure whether he is referring to a person or a thing, a lover or merely a love. (He could, after all, be referring to his lover’s high social status, her good breeding – hence being of rare birth.) It is only with the introduction of the pronoun ‘it’ in ‘’tis’ in the second line that we realise he has a love, but not a lover. Then we have the extra twist of the knife in the metaphor of childbearing: the speaker’s love is the product of a union between Despair and Impossibility, and the resulting ‘child’ of this sexual congress is the speaker’s hopeless love. But unlike Despair and Impossibility, we recognise that the speaker and his lover will never become sexual partners, much less conceive a child together. Part of what makes ‘The Definition of Love’ such an effective poem is this sharp use of metaphor to render in graspable language such abstract ideas as ‘love’ and ‘despair’.

Andrew Marvell often wrote about such hopeless love, and a good poem to analyse and discuss alongside ‘The Definition of Love’ is his brilliant ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’. For more marvellous Marvell, check out our analysis of his classic seduction poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on August 1, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. screamingnighthog

    Very informative and interesting reading here.

  2. Reblogged this on Recommended book and blog news, poetry and tarot inspiration and commented:
    A bold analysis of a work by one of my favourite writers, whose work exemplifies all I love and admire in the poets art.

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