The poem, The Unfortunate Lover by Andrew Marvell contains a very moving account of the ‘disasters’ which befell a man from before his birth to his death. This man, whom the poet designates as “the unfortunate lover”, was dogged by misfortunes throughout his life till he met his end. He was born in a shipwreck when his mother struck against a rock and he was forced out of her womb by the impact of the collision. Thereafter he was brought up and looked after by heartless guardians and officials from the Court of Wards.
The manner in which all those people treated him drove him to a state of despair. His plight was aggravated when he fell in love and got no response. His condition at this time could be compared to that of Ajax, who had to face the wrath of the hostile gods and who found himself in a desperate condition.
The unfortunate lover struggled against all his misfortunes bravely but his struggles came to nothing. Lovers of this kind, the poet tells us in conclusion, leave an everlasting name behind them while fortune or happy lovers are soon forgotten.
The whole account of the misfortunes of the unfortunate lover is very poignant. At three points in the poem, we are deeply move: first when the forced delivery of the child takes place, and this can be seen in the very first stanza of the poem; second when the treatment of the growing boy by the officials of the Court of Wards is described in stanza V of the poem; and third when the young man is hit by Cupid’s “winged artillery” in stanza VI of the poem.
The poem, The Unfortunate Lover by Andrew Marvell depicts the misfortunes which befell a lover. The lover is unfortunate because he was the victim of a series of misfortunes, but he is at the same time fortune because it is only unhappy lovers who become famous while the happy ones are soon forgotten.
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The Unfortunate Lover Analysis
Alas, how pleasant are their days
With whom the infant Love yet plays!
Sorted by pairs, they still are seen
By fountains cool, and shadows green.
But soon these flames do lose their light,
Like meteors of a summer’s night:
Nor can they to that region climb,
To make impression upon time.
The opening stanza tells us that infant lovers enjoy themselves by the side of cool streams and green shades, but that their love does not last long, being in this respect like meteors which flash across the sky and moments later et extinguished. Such happy lovers make no impression upon time. In other words, they don’t leave any name behind them.
’Twas in a shipwreck, when the seas
Ruled, and the winds did what they please,
That my poor lover floating lay,
And, ere brought forth, was cast away:
Till at the last the master-wave
Upon the rock his mother drave;
And there she split against the stone,
In a Caesarean sectión.
The sea him lent those bitter tears
Which at his eyes he always wears;
And from the winds the sighs he bore,
Which through his surging breast do roar.
No day he saw but that which breaks
Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
While round the rattling thunder hurled,
As at the funeral of the world.
Stanza II and III talk about the circumstances of the unfortunate lover’s birth and the sufferings he underwent then and soon afterward. This man was born in a shipwreck when his mother was thrown over-board and struck against a rock. The child was born as a result of the impact of this collision.
Thus, he came into this world as a result of what might be called a Caesarean operation. The mother died, while the child wept bitter tears. The child heard the frightening sounds of the thunder, while the flashes of forked lighting were seen above in the sky.
While Nature to his birth presents
This masque of quarrelling elements,
A numerous fleet of cormorants black,
That sailed insulting o’er the wrack,
Received into their cruel care
Th’ unfortunate and abject heir:
Guardians most fit to entertain
The orphan of the hurricane.
They fed him up with hopes and air,
Which soon digested to despair,
And as one cormorant fed him, still
Another on his heart did bill,
Thus while they famish him, and feast,
He both consumèd, and increased:
And languishèd with doubtful breath,
The amphibíum of life and death.
In the following stanzas, the poem traces the subsequent career of the man who grew up in the midst of extremely adverse circumstances. He was an heir to a large estate, but he fell into the hands of rapacious persons who were appointed his guardians to look after him and his property. These black-suited officials from the Court of Wards administered the estate until he attained the age of majority.
These officials proved to be heartless and they exploited this orphan of the hurricane to the fullest extent. They fed him with hopes and air, and this kind of food drove him to despair. While one official fed him, another pecked on his heart.
Thus, while they fed him and also starved him, he grew up but at the same time wasted away. He was like a man who is being adapted both to life and to death.
And now, when angry heaven would
Behold a spectacle of blood,
Fortune and he are called to play
At sharp before it all the day:
And tyrant Love his breast does ply
With all his winged artillery,
Whilst he, betwixt the flames and waves,
Like Ajax, the mad tempest braves.
The poet further says that fate showed no mercy to this man even at this stage. It seemed as if he and fate were fighting against each other with sharp swords, and that angry Heaven felt interested in watching this bloody spectacle.
The tyrannical god of love shot numerous arrows at him which hit him and caused flames of desire to burn in his heart. He had now fallen in love with no hope of his love being fulfilled. He was in the same desperate position in which the Greek warrior, Ajax, was when he had to face the wrath of the hostile gods.
The lover was now facing three kinds of attack – from love, from the waves of the ocean, and from the tempest. The waves and the tempest refer to other misfortunes such as the exploitation of his estate by greedy men. The lover tried his utmost to fight against his misfortunes and to resist the onslaught of fate.
But he proved unequal to the situation. The odds against him were overwhelming. A lover covered in his own blood can best understand the position in which this man now found himself.
This is the only banneret
That ever Love created yet:
Who though, by the malignant stars,
Forcèd to live in storms and wars,
Yet dying leaves a perfume here,
And music within every ear:
And he in story only rules,
In a field sable a lover gules.
Such is the honor that the god of love confers upon a lover who, on account of bad luck, feels compelled to live in the midst of storms and waves. Such a man at his death leaves behind his fame and glory, and his story sounds like music in the ears of the listeners. This unfortunate lover’s name will go down to posterity and will be mentioned with honor and approval.
Imagery and Metaphysical Conceits
The poem, The Unfortunate Lover by Andrew Marvell consists of a number of vivid and concrete pictures. There is, for example, the picture, in the very opening stanza, of infant lovers enjoying each other’s company by cool fountains and green shades, and the picture of the meteors on a summer’s night.
In the second stanza, there is a picture of the shipwreck when the mother of the unfortunate lover struck against a rock, and her child was born as a result of a Caesarean operation, so to speak. Then follow equally vivid pictures of the other misfortunes that befell the wretched lover.
Besides, the poem also contains a series of metaphysical conceits. The way the child was born is, for example, described as a Caesarean operation. This is a metaphysical conceit. Thereafter we are told that the sea lent to this child his bitter tears and that from the winds he bore the sighs which roared through his surging breast.
This is also a metaphysical conceit. One of the striking metaphysical conceits occurs in the stanza where we are told that the tyrant Love fired al his winged artillery at this man.
Metre and Stanza Form
Marvel, in the poem, The Unfortunate Lover has used a stanza-form which he subsequently used in Damon the Mower, The Garden, and Upon Appleton House. The stanza contains four octosyllabic couples. The poet handled this stanza-form with great success.