Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’ (1681)
Why are 17th century poets like John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell called ‘metaphysical’ poets? You can trace the name back to John Dryden, who in an unabashedly sexist comment accused John Donne of “affect[ing] the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses… perplex[ing] the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.”
Well, the Metaphysical poets proved that you can in fact engage the heart with science.
In this week’s poem, Andrew Marvell builds a geometrical and astronomical metaphor to describe doomed love, born of “Despair/ Upon Impossibility.” Like a geometrical object, Love is defined by its angles and lines: oblique lines meet, but these two parallel lovers will never join, no matter how infinite their span. Poles, planispheres (two-dimensional maps), conjunctions, oppositions – this is the language of astronomical measurement, which is what it takes to describe a love born like an “object strange and high.”
The Definition of Love 1 My Love is of a birth as rare As 'tis for object strange and high: It was begotten by Despair Upon Impossibility. 2 Magnanimous Despair alone Could show me so divine a thing, Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown But vainly flapped its tinsel wing. 3 And yet I quickly might arrive Where my extended Soul is fixt, But Fate does iron wedges drive, And always crowds itself betwixt. 4 For Fate with jealous eye does see Two perfect loves; nor lets them close: Their union would her ruin be, And her tyrannic pow'r depose. 5 And therefore her decrees of steel Us as the distant Poles have placed, (Though Love's whole world on us doth wheel) Not by themselves to be embraced. 6 Unless the giddy Heaven fall, And Earth some new convulsion tear; And, us to join, the world should all Be cramped into a Planisphere. 7 As lines so Loves oblique may well Themselves in every angle greet: But our so truly parallel, Though infinite can never meet. 8 Therefore the Love which us doth bind, But Fate so enviously debars, Is the Conjunction of the mind, And Opposition of the stars.
Image credit: Kepler’s diagram of the geocentric trajectory of Mars through several periods of apparent retrograde motion. Astronomia nova, Chapter 1, (1609), via Wikipedia