Commentary on The Definition of Love

Love's parentage

The opening ‘My Love' refers to the state, not the person. Logically, we start at its beginning, its parentage. Here is the first surprise: they are abstractions! We are clearly going to be reading a highly abstract poem. ‘Despair' and ‘Impossibility' are definite negatives. Why? The only suggestion offered is that it is ‘for object strange and high'. Does this suggest the aristocratic origins of the beloved, as well as the quality of his love for her? Is his love elevated and outrageous, when he should be really thinking of someone of his own class and in his own league? Or is it the aristocracy of the mind? ‘Strange' perhaps means ‘unique' here.

Magnanimous despair

Stanza two has a wonderful oxymorons, ‘Magnanimous Despair', leading to a wonderful paradox: how can despair ‘show him so divine a thing', when hope could not? Here is the metaphysical wit, teasing us to get our heads round this conundrum. It could mean that because of the lady's nobility, he could never win her; but being a noble love, it is also great-hearted (the literal meaning of ‘magnanimous'), which was the highest virtue for the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. If the poet had merely ‘hoped' for a suitable partner, he would never have allowed himself to fall in love with this lady. Despair is the price he has had to pay, but he was willing to pay it.

A philosophical interpretation

This is to imagine a definite context for the poem. A more general, more philosophical interpretation might be to suggest that only in despair lies the strength and integrity of emotion to break the lower sort of second-rate loving. Idealism both elevates and makes us aware of its unattainability.

Enter fate

Stanza three introduces a third term, Fate. If it were up to Love alone, he would soon reach his consummation. But Fate will not allow this. The next stanza expands on this: Fate, like a jealous lover, wants to guard her own power. Fulfilled love not only has great power, it is also self-determining – a theme Donne had taken up in his The Extasie. Donne believed such a state was possible; Marvell does not.

Parallel lines

The poem then sets up a series of extended images to explore this: in stanzas five and six, the image of the two lovers as two poles, turning absolutely together ‘Love's whole world', but never able to touch because to do so would be to collapse that very world, to cause it to lose its dimensions. In stanza seven the image becomes geometrical: lesser loves may touch as oblique lines will. Perfect loves run as parallel lines and so never actually join.

Conjunction of the mind

The final stanza does not draw out these images, but returns to the threesome of Love, Fate and the lovers. Their Fate is paradoxically always to be separated, yet to be in true ‘conjunction of the Mind'.

Investigating The Definition of Love
  • Look through the Summary of The Definition of Love
    • Can you suggest other explanations for the first two stanzas?
  • What does ‘extended Soul', in stanza 3, mean?
  • How can being in love co-exist with being in despair?
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