Themes in The Definition of Love

In real life

As we consider themes in Marvell's The Definition of Love, Donne's theme of The agony and ecstasy of love may come to mind but perhaps there is not quite enough felt experience to take that very far. It is more The completeness of the lovers' world that is being explored. Marvell is clearly a lot more pessimistic about this: it might be theoretically possible, but actually, in real life (‘Fate') it proves impossible. Marvell leaves what makes it impossible purposely vague, but suggests in other poems that we live in a fallen world. Fate thus becomes God's punishment, the refusal to allow the perfection of Eden for the lovers, and the fact that nature is now structured for imperfection.

Punning title

This is born out by the pun in the title. ‘Definition' means what we understand by it, the placing of exact meaning on something. But the Latin word, which Marvell would have been totally aware of, also means ‘limitation'. The Latin word ‘definio' means ‘I limit'. So the poem is really about the limits of love, not its extraordinary possibilities, as it is with Donne.

This is the force of the conceits. Perfect parallels, by their very nature, cannot join. It is not some arbitrary force, like some jealous parent or accident of birth. That is why we don't have to imagine a specific scenario, or, if we do, it merely illustrates a basic law of the universe, as basic as the laws of mathematics.

Marvell's Platonism

We could actually take this a little further, if we take on board Marvell's Platonism, seen in other poems. In Platonism, body and soul are very separate entities, almost enemies of one another. So a perfect love, Platonically, would be that of the minds – which is where the poem finishes. But that would necessarily mean that sexual passion, even sexual contact would work against such union of the souls. So here again, the parallel lines can never touch physically so that the love remains perfect. This is again ‘Fate', but Platonic, rather than Christian. Critics have argued which Marvell means, so feel free to join the argument!

More on Platonism: see The Garden, also by Marvell
Investigating The Definition of Love
  • Look again at the themes of The Definition of Love
    • Why do you think Love cannot manage to get both lines to touch?
    • In terms of communicating the actual experience of being in love, how much does Marvell achieve?
  • Compare this poem to Donne's The Extasie.
    • What seems to you to be the major differences in what the poets are saying?
    • What are the big differences in what they experience?
  • Can you see any other important themes?
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