The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell

The poem, The Definition of Love talks about the nature of love, which exists between the poet and his beloved. The poet regards this love as being perfect and therefore unattainable. In the poem, the poet, first of all, makes his readers acquainted with the parentage of this love. This love, the poet says, is of rare birth. It is the offspring of the marriage of Despair and Impossibility. Only resolute Despair could have produced such divine love. In the case of a love like this, Hope would prove to be utterly vain and futile because this love can never be achieved.

The poet in the next lines tells that it is the hostility of Fate which is responsible for not permitting him and his beloved to be united. Fate is always jealous of perfect lovers, and never allows them to be united. A union between two perfect lovers would be a fatal blow to the power and authority of Fate.

Fate has placed these two lovers as far part from each other as the North Pole and the South Pole are from each other. These lovers can never come together in spite of the fact that they are the pivot around which the whole world of love revolves.

The love, the poet says, can be fulfilled only if the spinning spheres collapse and if the earth is torn asunder by some violent convulsion. In order to bring these lovers together, the whole world must be projected or flattened into a plane. As only oblique lines can meet each other in all geometrical angles, in the same way only guilty of adulterous lovers can find the fulfillment of their passion.

The love of the poet and the love of his beloved are, however, like parallel lines that can never meet even if they are stretched to infinity. Thus the love of the poet and his beloved is only a meeting of the minds but can never take the form of a physical union. This love may be defined as “the conjunction of the mind”, and opposition of the stars.”

The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell


Theme, Imagery and Metaphysical Conceits in the Poem

The poem, The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell describes the character of the poet’s love for his beloved. This love, says the poet, is perfect and therefore unattainable. This love is divine, but for that very reason hopeless. The perfect love of this kind is most unwelcome to Fate who therefore never permits the union of perfect lovers. This kind of perfect love can mean only a spiritual union but never a physical one. This love is “the conjunction of the mind and opposition of the stars.”

The poem contains a number of metaphysical conceits, which can be best defined by the lines like “begotten by Despair upon Impossibility”. The idea here is that the poet’s love is unattainable, but in order to express this idea, the poet personifies Despair and Impossibility and imagines that his love was produced by their union.

There is another use of conceit in the poem. And this is a more fantastic conceit than that of the previously discussed. The poet says: “His love can be achieved only if three conditions are fulfilled: first, the spinning planets must collapse; second, the earth should be torn asunder by some fresh convulsion; and third, the whole world should be projected or flattened into a planet. As these three conditions are impossible to fulfill, the lovers cannot be united.

Yet another conceit occurs in the stanza in which the poet compares the loves between him and his beloved to the parallel lines which can never meet. Only oblique lines meet in all geometrical angles, and in the same way, only the passion of guilt or adulterous lovers can be satisfied. The two closing lines of the poem also contain a metaphysical conceit.

The love, which binds the poet with his beloved, has the genus “Conjunction”, and the difference is “of the mind”. The love that “Fate so enviously debars” has the genus “opposition” and difference “of the Stars.” They enter as the allies of Fate. Opposition and conjunction are antonyms, but not merely astronomical metaphors here, irrespective of the attendant “stars” and notwithstanding the sustained astronomical imagery in Stanzas V and VI.


The Definition of Love Analysis

My love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis for object strange and high;

It was begotten by Despair

Upon Impossibility.

My love has a rare parentage; and its aim is exceptionally strange and sublime. My love is the offspring of Despair and 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.

Only high-minded or resolute Despair could produce in me so noble a feeling as my love. Hope in the case of my love proved to be weak, like a bird with gaudy but feeble wings. Hope did try to promise fulfillment to me, but its effort was futile. This love of mine could never have been fulfilled.

And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended soul is fixt,

But Fate does iron wedges drive,

And always crowds itself betwixt.

And yet I could have arrived quickly at the destination which my soul, with its enlarged powers and capacities, had in view. But Fate adopted obstructionist methods to keep me away from my beloved just as a carpenter drives iron wedges into a log of wood in order to split it into two parts.

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.

Because Fate looks at two perfect lovers with hostile eyes and does not let them unite. If two perfect lovers like me and my beloved are united, the united union would be disastrous for Fate, and this union would set aside her dictatorial power.

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;

And therefore the inflexible and strong decrees of Fate have placed us as far away from each other as the North Pole is far away from the South Pole. Just as the two Poles cannot be brought together, so I and my beloved cannot be united, even though we two are the pivot around which the whole world of love revolves.

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.

Our union can come about only if the spinning planets collapse and some new convulsion occurs and splits the earth with its violence. In order to bring us together, the world must be crammed into the flat thickness of a cartographer’s planisphere, which means that the whole world must be projected or flattened into a plane.

As lines, so loves oblique may well

Themselves in every angle greet;

But ours so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

Only oblique lines can meet each other in all geometrical angles. In the same way, only two illicit or guilty lovers are able to meet each other. But our loves are like parallel lines. Such lines can never meet even if they are stretched to infinity. Likewise, my beloved and I can never be united.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debars,

Is the conjunction of the mind,

And opposition of the stars.

Therefore the love which serves as a bond between us, but which  Fate will never allow to be fulfilled on account of her hostility, can only mean a spiritual union and a physical separation.


Metre and Style of the Poem

The poem, The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell has a very simple idea, but that idea is expressed through learned imagery so that it requires a scholar to explain to us all the meanings and the implications of the various lines of this poem. However, some of the lines make a direct appeal to us because of their sheer simplicity.

For example, the psychology of despair in the second stanza corresponds closely to the human experience. Likewise, the third and fourth stanzas are very easy to understand because we are all acquainted with the concept of a hostile Fate. The villain in the case of the poet’s love is Fate which never allows perfect lovers to be united.

Although the love described in the poem is perfect and therefore ideal, the poem is a depressing one to read. There is neither any note of exultation nor any feeling of triumph in the non-fulfillment of the poem. At the most, we have a feeling of subdued contentment with the non-fulfillment of love.

The repeated emphasis on the malice of Fate is very pessimistic. We could even say that the prevailing mood of the poem is one of despondency notwithstanding the feeling of calm contentment at the end.

Moreover, the stanza form used in the poem is the same as in Mourning and The Mower to the Glow-worms, an octosyllabic iambic quatrain with alternate lines rhyming. It is not a glib measure, and all three poems are noticeably short.

This poem has eight stanzas, whereas the two others have nine and four respectively. What distinguishes this poem from the other two techniques is its confident, resonant tone and exceptional speed.

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  • Avatar Anthony says:

    I think that Marvell might have been talking of homosexual love — but of course without admitting it or leaving any direct clues in the wording.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I almost think it’s irrelevant really. gay or straight, love is love isn’t it?

  • Avatar lucy says:

    need to cover semantic fields

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I had never heard the term before. I had to google it, this is a good technique for analysing poems, I agree. However our team all have their own approach.

  • Avatar Siavash says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a useful analysis!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your kind words.

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