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Andrew Marvell: Poem analysis The Definition of Love Synopsis of The Definition o f Love The metaphysics of loveIn metaphysical

al style The metaphysics of love Marvells The Definition of Love is an excellent example of what constitutes ameta physical love poem. It is literally metaphysical in the sense of being philosophic al. Like science and mathematics, philosophy often tries to define what a concep t is and is not. What is the being of my love? the poet asks. The study of being i n metaphysics is called ontology. To define something is to find its limits, where it stops being that particular thing, and becomes another. Then to move to its centre: what is its central identity, without which it would not be that thing? This is exactly what Marvell does here. In metaphysical style The Definition of Love is also in the poetic style of the Metaphysicals. Like Do nne, Marvell is not in the least romantically concerned with his beloved, what s he looks like or feels or what she says. It is the love relationship and the sta te of being in love which matter. And like Donne, Marvell conducts his argument through images, and images so far removed from the conventional imageryassociate d with the topic that they can be called conceits. Marvell uses the language of mathematics and cosmology here, just as Donne uses that of geography, theology a nd science. Loves parentage The opening My Love refers to the state, not the person. Logically, we start at it s beginning, its parentage. Here is the first surprise: they are abstractions! W e are clearly going to be reading a highly abstract poem. Despair and Impossibility are definite negatives. Why? The only suggestion offered is that it is for object strange and high. Does this suggest the aristocratic origins of the beloved, as well as the quality of his love for her? Is his love elevated and outrageous, wh en he should be really thinking of someone of his own class and in his own leagu e? Or is it the aristocracy of the mind? Strange perhaps means unique here. Magnanimous despair Stanza two has a wonderful oxymorons, Magnanimous Despair, leading to a wonderful paradox: how can despair show him so divine a thing, when hope could not? Here is the metaphysical wit, teasing us to get our heads round this conundrum. It could mean that because of the ladys nobility, he could never win her; but being a n oble love, it is also great-hearted (the literal meaning of magnanimous), which wa s the highest virtue for the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. If the poet had merel y hoped for a suitable partner, he would never have allowed himself to fall in lov e with this lady. Despair is the price he has had to pay, but he was willing to pay it. A philosophical interpretation This is to imagine a definite context for the poem. A more general, more philoso phical interpretation might be to suggest that only in despair lies the strength and integrity of emotion to break the lower sort of second-rate loving. Idealis m both elevates and makes us aware of its unattainability. Enter fate Stanza three introduces a third term, Fate. If it were up to Love alone, he woul d soon reach his consummation. But Fate will not allow this. The next stanza exp ands on this: Fate, like a jealous lover, wants to guard her own power. Fulfille d love not only has great power, it is also self-determining a theme Donne had t aken up in his The Extasie. Donne believed such a state was possible; Marvell do es not. Parallel lines The poem then sets up a series of extended images to explore this: in stanzas fi ve and six, the image of the two lovers as two poles, turning absolutely togethe r Loves whole world, but never able to touch because to do so would be to collaps e that very world, to cause it to lose its dimensions. In stanza seven the image becomes geometrical: lesser loves may touch as oblique lines will. Perfect love s run as parallel lines and so never actually join. Conjunction of the mind

The final stanza does not draw out these images, but returns to the threesome of Love, Fate and the lovers. Their Fate is paradoxically always to be separated, yet to be in true conjunction of the Mind. In real life As we consider themes in Marvells The Definition of Love, Donnes theme of The ag ony and ecstasy of love may come to mind but perhaps there is not quite enough f elt experience to take that very far. It is more The completeness of the lovers world that is being explored. Marvell is clearly a lot more pessimistic about t his: it might be theoretically possible, but actually, in real life (Fate) it prov es impossible. Marvell leaves what makes it impossible purposely vague, but sugg ests in other poems that we live in a fallen world. Fate thus becomesGods punis hment, the refusal to allow the perfection of Eden for the lovers, and the fact that nature is now structured for imperfection. Punning title This is born out by the pun in the title. Definition means what we understand by i t, the placing of exact meaning on something. But the Latin word, which Marvell would have been totally aware of, also means limitation. The Latin word definio mean s I limit. So the poem is really about the limits of love, not its extraordinary p ossibilities, as it is with Donne. This is the force of the conceits. Perfect parallels, by their very nature, cann ot join. It is not some arbitrary force, like some jealous parent or accident of birth. That is why we dont have to imagine a specific scenario, or, if we do, it merely illustrates a basic law of the universe, as basic as the laws of mathe matics. Marvells Platonism We could actually take this a little further, if we take on board MarvellsPlato nism, seen in other poems. In Platonism, body and soul are very separate entitie s, almost enemies of one another. So a perfect love, Platonically, would be that of the minds which is where the poem finishes. But that would necessarily mean that sexual passion, even sexual contact would work against such union of the so uls. So here again, the parallel lines can never touch physically so that the lo ve remains perfect. This is again Fate, but Platonic, rather than Christian. Criti cs have argued which Marvell means, so feel free to join the argument! Separation In addition to the parallel lines conceit, we need to look at the conceits insta nzas five and six. They are both images of separation, picking up from stanza th rees But Fate does iron wedges drive ... . Iron now becomes Steel, both reminiscent of his the Iron gates of Life of To his Coy Mistress. Themacrocosm/microcosm imag e is again employed: Loves whole World on us doth wheel. But this time it is geogr aphical or cosmological: the separateness is necessary to maintain the dimension ality of love. Physical union would merely flatten it out, or at least cramp it int o a Planisphere, a term taken from an astronomical measuring instrument called an Astrolabe. Fate is personified as female, using Greek mythology to do this, though in that, the Fates are plural, three blindfolded spinners and weavers. But for Marvell, fate is certainly not some impersonal force she is very much alive and hostile, a jealous lover herself. Abstract and concrete The language of the Definition of Love is a strange mixture of abstract and conc rete. The opening stanza suggests abstract language and a philosophical discussi on, but we are suddenly confronted with very concrete diction: Tinsel Wing; Iron we dges; Steel/ wheel; giddy Heaven fall, and so on. There is clearly some more personal feeling behind this. There is not as much concrete diction as in To his Coy Mis tress, but the tone of suppressed frustration is still unmistakable. Ironic tension The tone, on the whole, is more humorous than the other poem. There is more obvi ous play of the mind, more irony of tone. This tone is established in two ways. Firstly, through the very tight, economic verse form which Marvell learned from the Latin poets he studied. The effect is of tight control, an economy that belo ngs to the enigmatic and paradoxical. The metre can pass from simplemonosyllable

s (look at how many there are in stanza one), to technical and abstract polysyll ables (Magnanimous, Tyrannick, Convulsion) with fluency and sharpness. The form is so efined, so restricted, that it helps us become aware of the ironic tension between formal control and the situational powerlessness of the poet he can write a tigh t poem, but cannot resolve the contradictions. So the tone is delicately balance d sometimes tongue-in-cheek; sometimes almost passionate. We have only to compare this to a poem by another metaphysical poet, Abraham Cow leys Impossibilities, to see how nuanced, how ironically controlled Marvells ton e is. Cowley has some similar ideas but his execution is clumsy and obvious. Intelligent and poetic The other way Marvell controls the tone is through the play of his mind, his wit . He can be intelligent and poetic at the same time. Marvells wit, as is Donne s, is to achieve new insights through joining up unlikely concepts. But the spin off is a controlled and flexible, even ambiguous tone. Is it this? Is it that? we keep asking of Marvells tone? Is he deadly serious or is this a joke? Both and neither must be the answer. We might say that poetically, that is exactly what the conjunction of the Mind is. Simple yet unpredictable The Definition of Love is remarkable in being highly abstract and yet having a r emarkably pared-down verse form. It shows that it isnt necessary to be long-winde d to discuss complex ideas. The verse form is basically iambictetrameter, though there are hardly any lines where there are four full stresses. Usually, at leas t one stress is only secondary, for example on minor words like her, by, of, or a seco nd stress in a polysyllabic word, such as Impossibility, where the metre is really asking for poss, bil and ty all to be stressed. Clearly only poss, being the root sy ble, can have a full stress. The others have secondary stresses. This shortens t he lines even more. Each quatrain is a self-contained sentence, often neatly div ided at the half-way point. The rhymewords are nearly always monosyllabic and st ressed, so in a sense, obvious, and yet neat and sometimes surprising. We dont expect Planisphere to come popping up as a rhyme for tear. That is Marvells control : keeping it simple, yet unpredictable.