Epic Fail: Andrew Marvell’s Definition of Love

It’s the time of the year when we are naturally drawn to reflect upon companionship (or the absence of it). The seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell finds a beautiful way of coming to terms with this absence.

Touch of Fortune

Last year, I wrote about 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, so it’s hardly surprising that plenty of his enclosures are poisonous. While boundaries and enclosures are restrictive and claustrophobic in the pastoral world, in the world of carnal desires they become necessary for intimate connections with people – and he is found wanting.

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 underlying rationale is that, unfortunately, we don’t.

‘Yonder all before us lie | Deserts of vast eternity’ (23-24) is not celebrating opportunity but anticipating 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, that the speaker’s hopes end up in vain.

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

As 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 the opportunity 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 parted lovers together, Marvell is thwarted by the lack of enclosure that would allow his lines to cross and bring love 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.

The poem is underpinned by the same savage irony of failure 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 wisened, celestial and unobtrusive way of telling the same story of yearning.

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). Marvell’s term ‘planisphere’ is defined as “a sphere projected in plano; as an Astrolabe“. Thomas Blount, Glossographia (1656), Hh3.

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