Summary of The Definition of Love

The Definition of Love – Andrew Marvel

Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love” very much resembles Joh Donne’s metaphysical lyrics. The poem depicts the love between souls and minds that is distinct from the physical body. The poem constitutes an exploration of love depicting two perfect yet irreconcilable loves — the love of the speaker and the love of his love. These two lovers are perfect in themselves, and they face each other in opposition to perfection, but, according to the speaker’s formulation, the same condition prevents them from meeting in the physical sphere.

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 time, the impossibility of its physical fulfillment. Hence, the speaker constructs an oxymoron — “Magnanimous Despair” — as an attempt to bring his reader closer to understanding the nature of his love.

Andrew Marvell further develops the speaker’s frustration at being separated from his beloved in stanza three, where the speaker elaborates upon the role of Fate. The speaker 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 to his beloved’s. However, Fate actively prevents this by erecting an “iron wedge” between the two lovers. The speaker then explains that Fate keeps 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 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 their physical and spiritual love. The symbols of an iron wedge and a steel decree suggest Fate’s dominion over the hard, physical realities of the body, which contrasts sharply with the speaker’s claim that the lovers enjoy metaphysical perfection in their own transcendent love.

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. This speaker uses the paradoxical term “planisphere” for this imagined event. Each of these conditions is impossible, and as the speaker 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, common love is less perfect, like a pair of oblique lines, which by nature will eventually intersect.

In the final stanza, Andrew Marvell 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. On one hand, the image of the conjunction suggests proximity and harmony, while the image of opposition implies that their love implicitly refers to the power of Fate in the physical universe, which in this case, prevents the lovers from meeting in the place of material embodiment.