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Andrew Marvell: Poem analysis » The Definition of Love » Synopsis of The Definition of Love

The metaphysics of love

Marvell's The Definition of Love is an excellent example of what constitutes a metaphysical love poem. It is literally ‘metaphysical' in the sense of being philosophical. Like science and mathematics, philosophy often tries to define what a concept is and is not. ‘What is the being of my love?' the poet asks. The study of being in 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 Donne, Marvell is not in the least romantically concerned with his beloved, what she looks like or feels or what she says. It is the love relationship and the state of being in love which matter. And like Donne, Marvell conducts his argument through images, and images so far removed from the conventional imagery associated 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 and science.

Investigating The Definition of Love
  • What do you understand by the term metaphysical wit?
    • How is it illustrated by The Definition of Love?
  • What do you understand about some of the mathematical ideas that Marvell uses, such as parallelism?
1. A branch of philosophy 2. The Metaphysical Poets were a group of seventeenth century English poets who used philosophical ideas extensively in their imagery and especially in conceits.
1. Imitation, copy, likeness, statue, picture in literature, art or imagination. 2. A figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action (i.e. as a metaphor or simile)
Figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action, either by saying X is Y (metaphor); or X is like Y (simile). In each case, X is the original, Y is the image.
An image that seems far-fetched or bizarre, but which is cleverly worked out so that the reader can understand the link.
The study of God.
1. A play of mind that can link dissimilar ideas together for humorous or insightful effect; the ability to play with words. 2. A person who does this.

My love is of a birth as rare
    As 'tis, for object, strange and high ;
It was begotten by Despair,
    Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
    Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble hope could ne'er have flown,
    But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
    Where my extended soul is fixed ;
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 power depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
    Us as the distant poles have placed,
(Though Love's whole world on us doth wheel),
    Not by themselves to be embraced,

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.

As lines, so love's oblique, may well
    Themselves in every angle greet :
But ours, so truly parallel,
    Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
    But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
    And opposition of the stars.