Epic Fail

Touch of Fortune

It’s the time of the year when, either in pleasure or platitude, we are naturally drawn to reflect upon companionship (or the absence of it). And though I’m rather at a loss after an already tribulation-filled February, it almost goes without saying that the good poet finds such a beautiful way of coming to terms with this absence.

Last year, in ‘Broken Dreams’, I reflected upon Andrew Marvell’s poetics of enclosure, finding it so tragic in nature. He traps himself and his characters inside of lives that offer so little solace, forever fascinated by how verse could deliver happy endings but how he cannot bring himself to enact it.

Enclosure, to Marvell, is a blessing and a curse. Plenty of his enclosures are poisonous, some are benign, and most are poignant. While boundaries and enclosures are restrictive and claustrophobic in the pastoral world, suddenly they become necessary in the real world for intimate connections with people – and he is found wanting.

Relationships still hinge on the same principles. It’s easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones, but figurative borders and boundaries – time together – is still needed. Some of John Donne’s poetry of departure constructs borders specifically to minimise that sense of distance.

But then, just being in the position to maintain a relationship is one that so many still envy – they for whom writing, like dreaming, remains aimless, to missing loves on unknown shores. For some, even the beginning seems a million miles away. And I think we see that in Marvell’s finest (though divergent) love poetry.

Unlike the pastoral world, where enclosure restricts the human condition, in the world of carnal desires it becomes a necessary condition for relationships to function. There’s a striking example of this in ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

From the very first line of the poem, the speaker acknowledges that a framework of boundaries is essential. ‘Had we but world enough and time…’ The poem’s whole rationale is that, unfortunately, we don’t have anything like it.

‘Yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity’ (23-24) is not celebrating opportunity but rather anticipating frustration and failure. Opportunity cannot be fulfilled here by infinity or expansiveness. It needs action, intent, and proximity.

The emphatic ‘tearing’ through the iron grates of life is one of very few instances in Marvell’s verse when the boundaries of enclosure are ostentatiously broken. It appears savagely ironic, then, given all that happens elsewhere, that the speaker’s hopes end up all in vain.

Similarly, in the beautiful ‘The Definition of Love’, it is an absence of enclosure that represents separation and failure.

Celestial AstrolabeAs lines so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so obviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

(‘The Definition of Love’, 25-32)

The metaphor is powerful in its simplicity. Where lines cross, loves can form. It’s about meeting, circumstance, good fortune, and perhaps a friendly dose of fate as well.

For everyone but the poet and his addressee, that’s not a problem. ‘Oblique’ lines, meeting at every angle, offer all the opportunities that people need. They are best explained by a celestial astrolabe, Timothy Raylor argues – a device for mapping star positions that Marvell appears to refer to through his term ‘planisphere’ [1]. And if this is the case, the sheer density of curved lines adds countless crossings and opportunities. Under the poet’s own terms, then, it’s almost impossible to fail.

Yet, somehow, he manages to. Only ‘truly parallel’ lines could possibly fail to meet. And that, it transpires, is the speaker’s fate.

Unlike Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, where the ‘circle’ enclosure keeps even parted lovers together, Marvell is thwarted by the lack of closure that would allow his lines to cross and bring his loves to life. Written in the stars? Not this time, my friend.

Knightmare Astrolabe
Familiar to Knightmare watchers, an astrolabe featured in the winning quest of 1992. Dungeoneer Ben had to deliver it to Captain Nemanor aboard the Cloudwalker.

As such, the poem is underpinned by the same kind of savage irony found in ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Marvell’s definition of love is made remarkable not in the achievement of it, but in the astonishing failure to achieve it despite the almost insurmountable wealth of opportunity that his own metaphor allows him.

The two poems work as unlikely variations on a theme. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ has a lingering bitterness: in rejection, in frustration and in failure. ‘The Definition of Love’ is a beautiful and unobtrusive way of telling that same yearning story.

For those of us who feel the February blues thanks to the month’s own bisector, taking sadness and finding beauty is something I think we can all aspire to.


[1] Timothy Raylor, ‘The Cartography of “The Definition of Love” Revisited’, The Andrew Marvell Society Newsletter, 2.1 (2010), {direct link}. Marvell’s term ‘planisphere’ is defined as “a sphere projected in plano; as an Astrolabe“. Thomas Blount, Glossographia (1656), Hh3.


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