Language and tone in The Definition of Love

Abstract and concrete

The language of the Definition of Love is a strange mixture of abstract and concrete. The opening stanza suggests abstract language and a philosophical discussion, but we are suddenly confronted with very concrete diction: ‘Tinsel Wing'; ‘Iron wedges'; ‘Steel/ wheel'; ‘giddy Heaven fall', and so on. There is clearly some more personal feeling behind this. There is not as much concrete diction as in To his Coy Mistress, but the tone of suppressed frustration is still unmistakable.

Ironic tension

The tone, on the whole, is more humorous than the other poem. There is more obvious play of the mind, more irony of tone. This tone is established in two ways. Firstly, through the very tight, economic verse form which Marvell learned from the Latin poets he studied. The effect is of tight control, an economy that belongs to the enigmatic and paradoxical. The metre can pass from simple monosyllables (look at how many there are in stanza one), to technical and abstract polysyllables (‘Magnanimous', ‘Tyrannick', ‘Convulsion') with fluency and sharpness. The form is so ‘defined', so ‘restricted', that it helps us become aware of the ironic tension between formal control and the situational powerlessness of the poet – he can write a tight poem, but cannot resolve the contradictions. So the tone is delicately balanced – sometimes tongue-in-cheek; sometimes almost passionate.

We have only to compare this to a poem by another metaphysical poet, Abraham Cowley's Impossibilities, to see how nuanced, how ironically controlled Marvell's tone is. Cowley has some similar ideas but his execution is clumsy and obvious.

Intelligent and poetic

The other way Marvell controls the tone is through the play of his mind, his wit. He can be intelligent and poetic at the same time. Marvell's wit, as is Donne's, is to achieve new insights through joining up unlikely concepts. But the spin off is a controlled and flexible, even ambiguous tone. ‘Is it this? Is it that?' we keep asking of Marvell's tone? Is he deadly serious or is this a joke? Both and neither must be the answer. We might say that poetically, that is exactly what the ‘conjunction of the Mind' is.

Investigating The Definition of Love
  • What would you say is Marvell's tone in The Definition of Love?
  • What the difference is between irony as a device and irony as a tone?
    • Can you have one form without the other?
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