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What is the definition of love? Can you even put a definition on something so abstract and personal? In his poem 'The Definition of Love' (1681), Andrew Marvell argues that love is dictated entirely by fate and that humans have very little control over it. The speaker, perpetually isolated from his beloved, claims his love is rare and divine, even though they can never be together. Using extended metaphors and vivid personification, Marvell displays his mastery of metaphysical poetry in 'The Definition of Love.'
'The Definition of Love'
Iambic Tetrameter (with slight variations)
ABAB CDCD ...
Personification, oxymoron, alliteration, simile, metaphor
Decrees of steel
Giddy heaven falling
World convulsing upon itself
All the world cramped together
Infinitely parallel lines
Fate can find ways to keep two people who are perfect for each other apart, but their love is just as pure (if not more so) than those who are able to be together; Love is controlled almost entirely by fate, not by humans themselves.
Although modern readers know Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) for his metaphysical poetry, in his own time he was much more famous as a politician and civil servant. Very little is actually known about his personal life, including his whereabouts for the duration of the English Civil War or if he was ever married.
Another one of the mysteries surrounding Marvell is his religion. His father was a lecturer at Holy Trinity Church and master of the Charterhouse, and Marvell grew up firmly rooted in the Anglican faith. His father sent him to Trinity College, Cambridge, a moderate school in comparison to Peterhouse. But his faith shifted several times over the course of his life, and some scholars now consider Marvell a proto-deist.
Deism emerged in 17th and 18th centuries as a group of "free thinking" European intellectuals. Deists believe that there is a divine, supernatural deity, but it does not interact with the human world. Instead of adhering to any one organized religion, deists believe that religious truths can be found through rational thinking, empirical evidence, and observations. Some scholars believe Marvell to be an early deist because of his relationship to religion in his later life.
'The Definition of Love' is thought to have been written during the 1650s, a time of political unrest in England when English society was transforming socially and politically after the English Civil War. Marvell, however, was able to avoid political turmoil as his loyalty wasn't firmly on one side or the other, backing both Cromwellian politics and the monarchy at different times in his career.
'The Definition of Love' is one of Marvell's several love poems. But it is unclear whether Marvell himself ever actually married. He never had children. After Marvell's death, his housekeeper, Mary Palmer, claimed the two secretly married in 1667. There are no records that support her claim, and most scholars believe this to be a legal fiction as an attempt to gain his inheritance. Perhaps 'The Definition of Love' is autobiographical and Marvell never married because fate kept him from his true love. Perhaps he married in secret. Or perhaps he just never married at all. The mystery surrounding Marvell's love life adds itself to the greater mystery behind his poetry.
'The Definition of Love' was published in Miscellaneous Poems in 1681, three years after Marvell's death.
The speaker reflects on the perfect, divine love that he shares with his beloved—a love that will never be realized. He says that their love is rare because it was born out of despair and impossibility. Although the two are perfect for one another, fate continually keeps them apart. The personification of fate makes it a jealous force that is tyrannical in keeping them apart. The only way that the two would actually be able to be together is if the world caved in. Although the tone of the poem is mournful, the speaker uses the oxymoron "Magnanimous Despair" to depict that it is actually the fact that they will never be together that makes his love all the deeper. By comparing lovers to lines he says that he and his lover are truly made for one another as they are parallel with one another. Other lines and other loves only intersect for a brief moment before branching out away from one another indefinitely. Never being able to be with his love makes their love true and special.
Marvell shows his mastery of metaphysical poetry using a variety of poetic devices in 'The Definition of Love.' He toys with complex extended metaphors and the personification of abstract ideas to create a poem that grapples with universal truths surrounding love and fate.
Metaphysical poetry: poetry that addresses personal and intellectual complexities, using devices such as conceits (unique extended metaphors), contradictions, and ambiguities.
Personification is used to turn the forces working against the speaker and his lover into physical antagonists instead of abstract ideas.
Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.
Consider Despair, Impossibility, and Fate, which are capitalized to further denote their personification. Throughout the poem, they play a more active role in the speaker's relationship than even his "beloved" does.
The speaker says of his love,
"It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility" (3-4).
From the start, their love was doomed by despair and impossibility, which gave birth to a love he can never have. Paradoxically, Despair is the most positive of the forces working against the speaker as "Magnanimous Despair alone / Could show me so divine a thing" (5-6). It is because there is no hope for their relationship that it seems too heavenly and perfect to the speaker.
If Despair is the most positive force, then Fate is by far the most negative one:
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" (11-16)
Fate is depicted as the main force keeping the two lovers apart. She is jealous and tyrannical, not wanting to share her power with anyone. Fate comes between the speaker and his love solely so she can maintain the control she holds over them. If the lovers were to unite, Fate would be ruined, and she is far too self-serving to ever let that happen. Fate is depicted almost as a possessive, jealous love interest who manipulates the speaker's relationship in order to keep him trapped where she wants him.
The personification of Despair lends itself to the famous case of an oxymoron in the poem with the phrase "Magnanimous Despair" (5). Magnanimous suggests generosity, free from vindictiveness, and nobility. So how is the embodiment of despair any of those things? To the speaker, being kept away from his lover is what makes their love so pure and beautiful. It is the absence of hope that makes his beloved so endearing.
Oxymoron: a figure of speech that juxtaposes two contradictory terms together to create a contradictory statement
Think of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597). It's considered one of the most classic love stories because they were doomed from the beginning. Just like the speaker's love in 'The Definition of Love', Romeo and Juliet's love is all the more touching because of its impossibility.
The speaker uses metaphor in conjunction with personification to detail exactly how Fate keeps him from his lover. He says,
"And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d" (17-18)
The "decrees of steel" are the ways in which Fate keeps them apart. She does it firmly and coldly, with no hint of humanity. "Distant poles" might mean that the speakers are physically kept far away from one another, but it is also a metaphor for how they are situated emotionally. As they can never be together, they are kept emotionally apart from one another as well.
Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as
Metaphor is further used to depict the only way in which the two could come together in the future:
"Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear" (21-22).
The physical imagery of the earth caving in and the heavens falling is used to depict something that would likely never happen. Even if those scenarios did happen and the lovers could be together figuratively, the results of either of those occurrences would be catastrophic and all life on earth would end anyway.
It is interesting to note that the reader actually doesn't know how the speaker's beloved feels about him. Andrew Marvell doesn't give the speaker's love a voice or any attributes at all throughout 'The Definition of Love'. What do you make of the one-sided profession of love? Is it effective?
Alliteration is used to stress certain words over others throughout the poem. Because alliteration makes words stand out through repetitive sounds, it slows the reader's pace and makes them focus on specific lines. Consider the repetition of the "A" sound in line 12: “And always crowds itself betwixt," which emphasizes the word always. Fate always comes in between them, so by definition, they will never be together. This idea that there will always be something standing in the way of their relationship is a central theme throughout the poem.
The repetition of the "F" sound in “For Fate with jealous eyes” (15) emphasizes the role that Fate plays in the poem, while the repetition of "W" in “Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel” emphasizes how expansive their love is with "whole world" (19).
Alliteration also occurs with "L" in lines 14 and 25: “Two perfect lovers, nor lets them close” and “As lines, so loves oblique may well.” The use of "L" alliteration, specifically for words like loves and lovers, adds a softness to the poem. The speaker is not rallying against fate or mad, he is resigned in his hopelessness and even finds some happiness that his love cannot be tainted.
Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words
A simile is used to showcase exactly how the speaker views his love. He describes it first as:
"My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high" (1-2).
He uses a simile to compare his love to an extraordinary, special object. He doesn't say what that object is, but it is certainly not mundane or typical. From the first two lines in the poem, the reader knows that there is something that sets the speaker's love apart from normal affection. It's rare, priceless, and uncommon.
Of course, he goes on to explain that his love is special because it is impossible. He compares his lover and himself to parallel lines, saying
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet."
The speaker and his lover are "truly parallel," they are perfect for one another and are constant and steady throughout time. However, they "can never meet" physically and emotionally because fate keeps them apart. The speaker seems to be okay with this, as other people are able to intersect with one another, but only do so briefly. Intersecting lines are not continuous or infinite. He implies that he would rather be parallel with his lover forever than be able to intersect with another.
Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like/as.
The entire poem is about defining love in terms of absence and isolation. The first lines of the poem read,
The speaker says that impossible love is both rare and divine. This challenges the belief held in most love poems, where love is all about a physical and emotional connection. The speaker does not have either with his lover, as they are kept far apart from one another. He asserts that it is the distance and unattainability of their relationship between them that makes his love deeper.
Interestingly, the speaker never describes his beloved in any concrete way, instead of focusing entirely on his personal feelings. She becomes a vague concept instead of an actual person capable of returning love. That begs the question: what matters more to the speaker, his beloved or his idea of love?
The speaker and his beloved are both at the mercy of fate. Fate is the ultimate source of power in the poem, a force that the speaker doesn't even try to fight. He says,
Fate is such a strong force on the speaker that free will isn't even taken into consideration. The speaker and his beloved are essentially pawns to be used in whatever ways Fate wants to use them. Both of them are passive forces throughout the poem, and the smilies the speaker uses to compare them are inanimate objects that have no agency of their own. In relation to the grander scheme of life, neither the speaker nor his beloved have any control.
Fate has religious connotations as well, since most religions, and certainly, Christianity, believe that God is the one who controls people's lives. God is said to have a secret plan for each person, bigger than the individual person him/herself. But here, if God is synonymous with Fate, God is selfish, tyrannical, and violent. This could speak to Marvell's possible conversion from Christianity into deism, where universal truth is found through reason and not organized religion. This is especially interesting when the speaker says his love is "divine." Does heaven both forge a perfect love and prevent it from happening?
The 'Definition of Love' is a poem published in the late 1600s by English poet/politician Andrew Marvell.
In 'The Definition of Love,' the speaker asserts that he has found the purest love of all with a woman he cannot be with. He says they're perfect for each other, but fate keeps them apart.
The tone is dejected and resigned.
'The Definition of Love' was thought to have been written in the 1650s during the English Civil War. It was not published until 1681 after Marvell's death.
Personification is the most prominent literary device, followed by oxymoron, alliteration, simile, and metaphor.
What is 'The Definition of Love'?
'The Definition of Love' is a poem written by English poet and politician Andrew Marvell. It was published after his death, in 1681.
What insight about Marvell's love life is helpful in interpreting the poem?
Nothing. Marvell's love life is largely a mystery, and it is uncertain whether he ever married. His housekeeper claimed they married before his death, but that is widely thought to be a false claim for his inheritance.
What kind of poem is 'The Definition of Love'?
It is a metaphysical poem, meaning it uses complex figurative language to examine universal truths about life.
What is 'The Definition of Love' about?
The poem is about a man who is perpetually kept apart from his lover by fate. Although the two have never been and will never be together, he asserts that his love is rare and divine.
What role does personification play in the poem?
Personification is used to make abstract ideas, namely Fate, Despair, Hope, and Impossibility, active forces in the speaker's life. It turns Fate into the central antagonist who is actively working against the speaker.
What role does simile play in the poem?
Simile is used to compare the speaker and his beloved to inanimate objects. The speaker compares them to rare objects and parallel lines. This paints a good mental image of their relationship to one another, but it also paints them as passive forces without any choice in their own lives.
What is interesting about the role of the lover in the poem?
The speaker's beloved isn't described at all, physically or through ideas. She is merely the implied receiver of the speaker's love.
Why does Fate keep the speaker apart from his beloved?
Fate doesn't want to lose her control over the speaker. Letting the two be together would mean she could no longer keep them apart and under her control.
How does the speaker say the lovers could be united?
They could only be united if the world caved in on itself or if the heavens fell. So never.
What are the themes in 'The Definition of Love'?
Fate vs. Freewill
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