Marvell (1681) Judged the best example of the works of metaphysical poets and poetry, Andrew Mar-vell's work "The Definition of Love" remains a source of discussion for literary critics. As does most of Marvell's lyric poetry, it lacks a specific date of composition and appeared first in his posthumous 1681 collection, Miscellaneous Poems. Contextually similar to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and containing echoes of poetry from the late 16th century and the early decades of the 17th century, "The Definition of Love" probably can be dated between 1649 and 1651; most critics feel confident it is one of the poet's early works. While many identify it with metaphysical poetry by John Donne, in particular his "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" and "A Valediction: Of Weeping," others see resemblance to works by George Herbert, Abraham Cowley, and Richard Lovelace. Some judge Marvell's geometric imagery superior to that of Donne, while others feel his presentation lacks the personal passion of Donne and other predecessors. He may have produced the poem as an exercise in imitation, a common practice in his day, emphasizing the figurative language (figure of speech) of hyperbole and including antithesis, the latter approach resulting in a poor attempt to reproduce Donne's notable use of paradox. Geometry provides its framework, on which he builds his argument through logic and the inversion of logic through the use of oxymoron and paradox, resulting in the type of irony that distinguished Socratic dialectic. Its structure rests on the meter and feet of iambic tetrameter arranged in nine quatrains with the rhyme scheme of abab.
The first stanza presents the idea of logic, or illogic, as the speaker compares his love to a rare birth and to an "object strange and high." Oxymoronically, it is "begotten by Despair" and based "Upon Impossibility." An oxymoron opens the second stanza, as Marvell begins, "Magnanimous Despair alone / Could show me so divine a thing" and defines Hope as "feeble," like an inept angel that "vainly flapped its tinsel wing." Where
Donne designs his love as not only possible, but realistic, Marvell notes the presence, yet vain nature, of his passion. The third stanza notes the speaker's inability to "arrive / Where my extended soul is fixed," echoing the compass imagery from Donne's verse but inverting it by rendering the speaker incapable of challenging that fixed position. He cannot act on his love, because of the obstruction caused "iron wedges," which "Fate" drives between him and his goal, only one approach apparently used by Fate as it "crowds itself betwixt." The fourth stanza explains that Fate's "jealous eye" moves it to separate the lovers, and the imagery of "perfect loves" reflects the Platonic ideal of love. Should the lovers unite, Fate's "tyrannic power" would be deposed. Stanza 5 follows stanza 4's explanation with the logic of a reaction to every action:
And therefore her decrees of steel Us as the distinct poles have placed, (Though Love's whole world on us doth wheel) Not by themselves to be embraced:
This view of Fate originates in Horace's Carmina, a view that Marvell intensifies through Fate's power to place the speaker and his love at opposite magnetic poles. The speaker parenthetically suggests the world's dependence on such perfect spiritual love, as its rotation depends upon the magnetic poles. He broadens his explanation in stanzas 6 and 7 through use of the geometric figures compared to those from Donne:
Unless the giddy heaven fall, And earth some new convulsion tear; And, us to join, the world should all Be cramped into a planisphere
As lines so loves oblique may well Themselves in every angle greet: Bout ours so truly parallel, Though infinite, can never meet.
In Marvell's vision, in order for these lovers to unite, heaven must experience a mighty upheaval that would result in the squashing flat of earth. That remains an impossibility, echoing that term in the opening stanza.
Was this article helpful?