Structure and versification in The Definition of Love

Simple yet unpredictable

The Definition of Love is remarkable in being highly abstract and yet having a remarkably pared-down verse form. It shows that it isn't necessary to be long-winded to discuss complex ideas. The verse form is basically iambic tetrameter, though there are hardly any lines where there are four full stresses. Usually, at least one stress is only secondary, for example on minor words like ‘her', ‘by', ‘of', or a second stress in a polysyllabic word, such as ‘Impossibility', where the metre is really asking for ‘poss', ‘bil' and ‘ty' all to be stressed. Clearly only ‘poss', being the root syllable, can have a full stress. The others have secondary stresses. This shortens the lines even more. Each quatrain is a self-contained sentence, often neatly divided at the half-way point. The rhyme words are nearly always monosyllabic and stressed, so in a sense, obvious, and yet neat and sometimes surprising. We don't expect ‘Planisphere' to come popping up as a rhyme for ‘tear'. That is Marvell's control: keeping it simple, yet unpredictable.

Investigating The Definition of Love
  • Consider the structure of The Definition of Love
  • Take one of the stanzas and make a full metric analysis of it
    • Now work out the rhythms and tone
  • The use of pauses is often important in ironic verse
    • How many pauses does Marvell ask for?
    • What are their effect?
  • How much is structured by antithesis?
    • Pick out a few examples
  • Compare the overall effect of this poem with that of To his Coy Mistress
    • Which effects are similar
    • What differences are there?
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