Conceits and Hidden Meanings In Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”
“The Definition of Love” by Andrew Marvell is a metaphysical poem about a forbidden love that he can never acquire. He talks about Fate being the sole obstacle between him and his lover who are perfect for one another, yet Fate debars and interferes every time which prevents them from joining in a union. Marvell explains the extent of his unfortunate love by using ambiguity, irony and conceits throughout his poem. My paper will encapsulate my interpretations on the poem using textual evidence that Marvell may have been talking about a homosexual lover, and just used Fate as an excuse for his failure to accept such love.
Marvell begins his poem by personifying his love. He calls his love “rare” (1), “strange and high” (2). Then he tells his readers that his love is also forbidden and impossible. So far in the poem, we don’t have a name of the lover, neither do we know if the lover is a boy or a girl. Then he uses an oxymoron by calling this situation with his lover a “Magnanimous Despair” (5) followed by “feeble Hope” (7) leading to a paradox. He emphasizes on how generous and hopeless his love is and how it shows him something so “divine” (6) that he still feels a sense of Hope. Then “Fate” (11) comes in with her “jealous eye” (13) and crushes all the Hope he feels inside.
From this point on in the poem, Marvell uses conceits to demonstrate how Fate uses its “tyrannic pow’r” (16) and messes with him and his lover. He claims that Fate uses “iron wedges” to split the two lovers and interferes in their union. He personifies Fate by calling her a “she” and “jealous” as if a woman might be interfering between him and his lover. Could it be that his lover was married to a woman, or did he just spiritually believes that he cannot be with his lover because it isn’t in his Fate? Marvell clarifies this more in the next stanza. In stanza five, Marvell uses his most powerful conceit showing off his intellect with astronomy and philosophy.
“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;” (17-20)
Marvell compares his love to the whole world. He is claiming that his love is a wheel, which is the planet earth and Fate placed them on two different poles. They can go in circles but in order for them to meet the wheel has to break, meaning the Earth has to collapse, the heaven has to fall or it has to fold itself into a “planisphere” (24). Marvell is implying that he might not be talking about the planet Earth itself, but his own little world. He is saying that embracing his lover will turn his world upside down.
Then he goes on to compare his “rare” and “strange” love to common love using geometrical references. He says that common love, who aren’t so perfect like “oblique” lines gets to meet in a union, but his love is so perfect, they are “parallel” to one another, “Though infinite” but they “can never meet”. In the final stanza, Marvell stops his comparison and simply reminds his readers that he and his lover are absolutely perfect, but jealous Fate won’t allow them to be together. Marvell was showing off his intellect with humor throughout his very abstract poem. He uses “Hope’s tinsel wings” to contrast with “Fate’s iron wedges”. “Fate” crowding herself between these lovers causing them to never join in a union was very clever and rhyming “tear” with “planisphere” was uncalled for. He plays with his reader’s minds and with his comparisons of such random things makes the reader stop and think about what is happening. These quick wits makes the poem extremely abstract and he passes without having to tell us the real reason for such a hopeless love.
Throughout the poem, Marvell points fingers at Fate and personifies her as a “she”, which can be interpreted as a female who is coming between him and his lover and he is really angry at her, he calls her jealous, tyrannic and envious. He also calls his love “rare” which means it is not a common love. What makes Marvell think his love was “rare” and “strange”. What is a common love? Is it between a man and woman? Is his love “rare and strange” because it is not for a woman? He beats around the bushes and fools his readers about such a tragic love yet he doesn’t give us any logical explanations. He doesn’t specify the gender, he doesn’t give us any names, any occupations or any specific detail that can help us find out for ourselves.
There are no records of Andrew Marvell ever being married and even if he was, given this poem was written over 350 years ago, Marvell couldn’t have published about homosexuality out in the open, so he used his wit to make a fool out of his readers by continuously distracting them with conceits and hidden meanings. The title of the poem is “The Definition of Love”, but it is about two lovers who are perfect for each other but they can never be together. May be he isn’t looking for the meaning of love, may be he is asking how “definite” love truly is.
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