Andrew Marvell wrote the poem "The Definition of Love". It was published in The Poems of Andrew Marvell in 1892. It is categorized as a metaphysical poem due to its attempt to apply logic to the abstract notion of love.
The poem is composed of eight quatrains. The rhyme scheme follows an ABAB patterns except in two stanzas. In the first stanza, the reader would need to mispronounce "impossibility" as "impssibilit-igh" to fit the scheme. Otherwise, stanza one falls under ABAC. The sixth stanza has an off rhyme with the A-pattern lines. The poem presents a regular rhythm overall when read aloud.
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
The first lines of the poem are uncommon in poetry about love. The speaker (henceforth referred to with male pronouns) describes his love as being rare. He also claims it is for something (or someone) strange.
It was begotten by Despair
The third and fourth lines of the poem state the speaker’s love was created by Despair and Impossibility. These two entities are personified, evidenced by the use of capital letters. They are further personified by the notion they are able to create (or birth) the love of a person. Once again, these descriptions are fairly odd. The metaphysical aspects of the poem are immediately shown in the first quatrain of the poem.
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Magnanimous indicates a person who is very forgiving. In addition to the personification of Despair, the poem continues using unusual descriptors. It is quite odd to think of Despair, the complete loss of hope, as being forgiving. However, the speaker attributes the love he feels to the aforementioned Despair. In addition, the reader witnesses the first romantic depiction of love with the word "divine."
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.
Though Hope is often thought of as strong, here it is portrayed as weak. The speaker claims it could never have achieved what Despair did.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
A fixed soul likely refers to the speaker’s body. This casts light on the earlier stanzas in which his love is shown, through dark descriptions and the portrayal of Despair, to be saddening. In this stanza, he goes on to say Fate (another personification) comes between him and, presumably, his love.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
The idea the reader develops while reading the previous stanzas is confirmed at the start of the fourth stanza. Fate does not allow two loves to be close to each other. In this case, it is the speaker and his beloved.
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.
Fate is show to be tyrannical. Fate, previously described as jealous, does not want to be ruined or lose power.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
The "decrees of steel" are the laws Fate has put into place. The commands of Fate hold strong, keeping the speaker and his love apart.
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;
These lines suggest the union of the lovers would be accepted, maybe celebrated, by the people. Unfortunately, Fate does not allow it and so they cannot be together.
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
In these two lines, the speaker lists natural calamities that are highly unlikely, if not impossible, to occur.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
In the same stanza, the speaker mentions him uniting with his love. This could only be possible if the aforementioned occurred. As a result, they would be crowded into a planisphere, a map or projection of a sphere, with all people. This continues on the vein of atypical descriptions and metaphysical ideas applied to love.
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
Oblique lines bend and slant, meaning they will come in contact. This does not apply to the lovers in question throughout this poem.
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
The speaker describes their love as truly parallel. This implies something ideal though it is not. Being truly parallel, this means the two will never meet or touch. They are, indeed, fated to be apart.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
The speaker and his beloved are bound by love. They are devoted to each other in feeling but never physically. Fate persists in keeping them apart. Once again, Fate is described as jealous by the use of the word "enviously."
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
The final lines explain how the two lovers can be bound to one another even though they cannot physically be together. They are connected by their minds, the love they feel and think of. This is the ending in the metaphysical, by attempting to create a logical explanation for something abstract.
In "The Definition of Love," the reciprocated but impossible love of the speaker is detailed. Throughout the poem, the reader learns how the two lovers are kept apart. The reader is also taken through an argument of sorts to exemplify how two people can be kept apart physically but nothing will change their hearts. Essentially, the speaker attempts to have the reader understand why and how he is connected to his love in such a way that cannot be easily refuted.
The theme of the poem is love, specifically how emotions may not always agree with physicality. Though two people may be very much in love and devoted to one another, there is a possibility they can never be together. This creates a painful struggle for those who experience it.