The title of this poem from seventeenth century English poet Andrew Marvell promises The Definition of Love – not a definition of love but the real thing, the definitive answer. Who would not rush to read this and find out the solutions to one of life’s eternal conundrums? Well, we don’t quite get that lofty ambition fulfilled, but we do get a very good poem in which the forces of attraction are stymied by the forces of separation, or as Marvell frames it, Love versus Fate. Can love win out? Read on…
The Definition Of Love
My Love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Magnanimous Despair alone.
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown
But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended Soul is fixt,
But Fate does Iron wedges drive,
And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.
For Fate with jealous Eye does see.
Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close:
Their union would her ruine be,
And her Tyrannick pow’r depose.
And therefore her Decrees of Steel
Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,
(Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d.
Unless the giddy Heaven fall,
And Earth some new Convulsion tear;
And, us to joyn, the World should all
Be cramp’d into a Planisphere.
As Lines so Loves Oblique may well
Themselves in every Angle greet:
But ours so truly Paralel,
Though infinite can never meet.
Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debarrs,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.
The poet sets the bar high for a possible triumph of love in the very first stanza when he characterise s his love as “begotten by despair upon impossibility”. Unfortunately for all romantics, the poem continues, stanza after stanza, to talk up the strength of Fate and the feebleness of Hope and love. The two lovers are like parralel lines which can gaze across at each other but never meet. (A nice short geometry lesson can be read in the seventh stanza. And the random thought occurs to me, could the great 1970s album from Blondie, Parralel Lines, have a subtext of unrequited love?)
And so on to the conclusion, in the final stanza – Fate decrees the eternal separation of the lovers, therefore they can only be joined by the mind – an intellectual love, not a physical love. Contrast this with The sensuousness of Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”, posted here on October 7th, 2014, and you can see a great contrast in the poet’s treatment of love.
The Poetry Dude