The poem’s speaker is an anonymous lover who contemplates the nature and definition of love. He begins by saying that his love is both “rare” and “strange” because it was “begotten by Despair / Upon Impossibility.” He goes on to claim that only despair could reveal to him “so divine a thing” as this love, because “Hope” could never come near it. He imagines that he “quickly might arrive” to where this love leads him, but finds that his soul’s inclinations are thwarted by Fate, who “drives iron wedges” between the speaker and his object of affection. This is because, according to the speaker, Fate cannot allow “Two perfect loves” to come together. Doing so would overthrow Fate’s power, so Fate has placed the two lovers into physically separate spaces, like “distant poles” that can never come together. This fact must remain so, the speaker laments, unless the “giddy heaven” were to fall and the entire world was “cramped into a planisphere.” The speaker then compares the lovers’ love to the image of two infinite lines, each of which forms a perfect circle. But because these lines are parallel, they shall never intersect and meet. Therefore, the speaker concludes, the love that binds them is also thwarted enviously by Fate, and the only union they share is a union of the mind. Analysis
Marvell’s “The Definition of Love” is typically related to John Donne’s metaphysical lyrics, due to its elaborate imagery and neo Platonic implications of a love between souls or minds that is distinct from the physical body. The poem constitutes an exploration of love by depicting two perfect yet irreconcilable loves – the love of the speaker, and the love of his lover. These two loves are perfect in themselves, and they face each other in an opposition of perfection, but that same condition prevents them from meeting in the physical sphere, according to the speaker’s formulation. The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which features four lines of iambic tetrameter that rhyme alternately, in a pattern of ABAB, CDCD, and so forth. In the first stanza the speaker makes an odd and striking claim – that his love is so unique and “rare” it must have been born of “Despair” and “Impossibility,” which is a surprisingly dark and tragic formulation of love. The speaker goes on to explain that only despair could have revealed this love to him, because it shows both the utter perfection of the love he feels, and at the same the impossibility of its physical fulfillment. Hence, the speaker constructs an oxymoron – “Magnanimous Despair” – as an attempt at bringing us closer to a definition of his love. The frustrations of separation from his beloved are further developed in stanza three, where the speaker elaborates upon the role of Fate. He claims that his perfect love would lead him to the place where his “extended soul is fixed,” or in other words would lead his body to the location where his soul is already connected with his beloved. But Fate actively prevents this, by erecting an “iron wedge” between the two lovers. The speaker then explains that Fate bars the lovers from each other because it perceives their union as usurping its power. The speaker represents Fate as a tyrant with a “jealous eye” who desires above all to maintain control over the two perfect loves. He goes on to say that Fate has given “decrees of steel” that place the two lovers distantly apart, which effectively prevents a perfect union of both physical and spiritual loves. The symbols of an iron wedge and steel decree suggest Fate’s dominion over the hard, physical realities of the body, which contrast sharply with the speaker’s claim that the lovers enjoy metaphysical perfection in their own transcendent loves. Next, the speaker attempts to imagine the only conditions in which he and his lover might be physically united. These include the heavens falling, an earthquake collapsing the earth or the entire planet being compressed into a flat plane – “planisphere” is the paradoxical term the speaker uses for this imagined event. Each of these conditions is, of course, impossible, and as the speaker recognizes and acknowledges this fact, he goes on to construct a new, geometrical conceit that contrasts the love of the speaker and his lady with a more typical love. Their love is like a pair of parallel lines – infinitely perfect as they extend, yet they shall never meet. Meanwhile, the love of others is less perfect, like a pair of oblique lines that will eventually intersect. The final stanza delivers two definitions of the speaker’s love: it is both “the conjunction of the mind” and the “opposition of the stars.” This two-part definition encapsulates the divided nature of their love, since on the one hand the image of a conjunction suggests proximity and harmony, while on the other hand the image of opposition implies the degree to which their love can never be entirely in union. This idea implicitly refers to power of Fate in the physical universe, which prevents the lovers’ from meeting on the plane of material embodiment.