The Definition of Love in Literature


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The tragic tale of star-crossed lovers is a tale told by many. The Romeo and Juliets, the Orpheus and Eurydice, the Gatsby Daisys. So often is a love so great but so destined for failure. Andrew Marvell’s attitude towards love is similar within his poem, The Definition of Love. Through the use of imagery, personification, and metaphor, it is clear Marvell believes that the idea of perfect love exists but it is not realistically possible.

Marvell uses imagery to illustrate that truly perfect love cannot exist physically. Marvell uses imagery when he relates his love to the “distant poles.” He is like the North Pole as his object of affection is the South. These two lovers face each other in complete conjunction and harmony but it is this exact alignment that prevents them from ever coming together. The two lovers are separated by a “whole world”. This imagery of the two poles reiterates the idea that this love is perfect but unrealistic. The only way in which these two lovers could meet is if the “giddy heavens fall” or “some new convulsions fail” which turns the earth into a two-dimensional “planisphere” where the poles could unite as one. The use of the word “unless’ and the hopeless tone of the sixth stanza lead the reader to believe that this is utterly impossible. It is certainly not very likely that the heavens crash and the Earth will be torn in half. Marvell uses imagery to develop his attitude that ideally a perfect love can exist but in the physical world, it is impossible.

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The literary device of personification is incorporated in the poem to relay the idea that ideal love is only possible in the mind. The most blatant use of personification in the poem is that of Fate. It is almost as if fate is a person with a “jealous eye” because the passion between the two lovers is too great and “would ruin her be”. Thus, to keep superiority and balance, Fate’s “tyrannic power deposes” and she prevents these lovers from ever coming together in union. The speaker explains that his perfect love would allow him to “arrive where [his] extended soul is fixed,” or, more simply put, where his spiritual connection to his lover would become physical. Nonetheless, this never can happen as Fate has driven “iron wedges” between them and “always crowds itself betwixt.” Fate’s “decrees of steel” result in a perfect love that will never exist. Although the love between the lovers is strong, Fate has absolute dominion over the physical world and thus overpowers the metaphysical perfection of their adoration. Marvel uses personification to illustrate how their perfect love is never fated to be.

Marvel uses the poetic device of metaphor to describe their perfect love and its failure to exist in reality. Marvel likens geometry to perfect love. A love so great is like “truly parallel” lines, infinite and aligned but never to cross paths. A much more common and less ideal love, or rather “oblique lines”, will in “every angel greet.” A love so true is only possible within one’s soul, it can never materialize into a physical relationship. The metaphor of childbearing is also utilized to illustrate the idea of ill-fated perfect love. The speaker’s love is like the child of Despair and Impossibility. This makes sense as only despair and impossibility could have dealt him love so ideal but unattainable in the physical world.

A perfect love, argues Marvell, is a thing that can only live in the mind and soul. There are perhaps people throughout the world and history who were meant to be. However, fate does not allow such pairings to ever transcend the metaphysical realm. Through the use of imagery, personification, and metaphor, Marvell explains that perfect love is completely unattainable in reality.  

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