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Featured Poem: The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell

Written by Rachael Norris, 10th February 2020

This week's Featured Poem is The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Tom Young.

The definition of ‘love’, you say? Sounds handy. But on first reading I realise I’m probably not going to get the kind of definition I was hoping for. I am interested in a love born of ‘Despair’ though, and there are a few other bits that stand out as immediately touching: ‘feeble hope’, and love as an ‘extended soul’, for example.

On second and third reading I think I can start to get my head around what’s going on. Love sprouting in unexpected places. Having a destination in mind that you feel you can never reach. Desiring what you can’t have. I love ‘Magnanimous Despair alone / Could show me so divine a thing’ and the pictures of the two lovers (or the lover and their object?) as distant poles, and later as parallel lines running alongside each other forever (a whole life?), but never meeting. It’s a rich poem, with some thoughts I relate to quite quickly, and others that will take some puzzling out.

I would really like to read this in a Shared Reading group, because firstly it doesn’t give up its secrets straight away, and secondly, once you give it some close attention, it seems to be describing a feeling that’s not just big, but common too - important and ordinary.

The Definition of Love
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
By Andrew Marvell

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