Comment on Andrew Marvell’s Treatment of Love in His Love-Poetry
Love, as in the other metaphysical poets plays a significant role in Marvell’s poetry. It has been said that one of three themes is love and it occupies a considerable portions of his poetry. In his love-poetry, his attitude to women is more of adoration than of condemnation what we find in John Donne.
A critic has found Marvell the most unsatisfactory in the poems which deal with the theme of love except the poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” “The Unfortunate Love” is according to this critic the least successful love poem ever written by a man of genius. Even the celebrated love poem, “The Definition of Love” is merely, this critic points out a study in the manner of Donne’s “Valediction.” In spite of this attack, some of his love poems are rightly considered to be the least ones of metaphysical love-poetry and even of the love poems ever written by English poets. One of such poems is “To His Coy Mistress.” It is a masterpiece. His love-poetry lack passion- this opinion of some of the critics does not hold water when we consider this poem along with the poems like “The Fair Singer,” “The Unfortunate Lover,” and so on. Although most of the points of his love-poems are unconventional, he was greatly influenced by Petrarch in at least three poems— “To His Coy Mistress,” “The Fair Singer,” and “The Unfortunate Lover.” Like Petrarch and most of the Elizabethan love-poets, he exalts his beloved and lavishly praises her beauty and charm. The Petrarchan lover was given to sighting and weeping over the indifference and callousness of his beloved ultimately leading him to disappointment in love. In the poems, “To His Coy Mistress” and “The Fair Singer,” the poet showers glowing and eloquent praises on her physical charms as manifested in her eyes and voice. The poet says:
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze
An age at least to every part
And the last age should show your heart.
In the pretty love-lyric, the poet finds in his beloved a combination of two beauties— the beauty of her eyes and the beauty of her voice. It has compelled the poet to surrender to her. He says:
But all resistance against her is vain,
Who has the advantage both of Eyes and Voice.
In all these three poems we find intense passion. It is ardent and fervid. In the poem, “The Unfortunate Lover,” his passion is almost red-hot. The lover is here hit by “all the winged artillery of Cupid and like Ajax finds himself between “the flames of the waves.” As the fine example of metaphysical conceit, we find the lover “dressed in his own blood.” It is his disappointment in love which constitutes his real tragedy and which brings his life to a sorrowful conclusion.
In other love-poems, the passion is not as intense as it is in the above mentioned poems. The intellectual element is so strong in his love-poetry as to push the passion of the love into the background. In these poems, T. S. Eliot rightly finds “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.” The argumentative quality can be easily distinguished in these poems. “The Definition of Lover” is an outstanding example of such love-lyrics. The poet gets entangles with arguments although he begins with a highly intellectual conceit. He says:
My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis for object strange and high
It was begotten by despair
As a critic has pointed out, the poem begins with three dimensional allegorical figures— Despair, Hope, and Fate—with Tinsel wings, iron wedges, and decrees of steel who controls love’s whole world. The poet could have achieved the friction of his love, but fate drove them apart as it grew jealous of them—the lover and the beloved. The poet next compares his and his mistress’ love to parallel lines which can never meet even if stretched to infinity. Finally he describes the love between him and his beloved as the “conjunction of mind” and “the opposition of stars.” The entire poem rests on logically developed arguments and creates the illusion of an essay in abstraction. Besides, science has been called to the aid of art for expressing the sentiment. Geometry and Astronomy are here pressed into the service of logic. The poem therefore expresses a thoroughly unconventional theme and holds a unique position in the whole range of English love-poetry.
There is yet another poem in which Marvell has given precedence to the argumentative quality over the passion of love. It is “young love” which expresses a grown-up man’s love for a little girl of about thirteen or fourteen. The poet persuades the young immature girl to love him because he loves her. He cannot wait till she attains fifteen as Fate may intervene in the fulfillment of love. The whole poem is one extended argument and the originality of this poem lies in the manner in which the argument is developed.
The syllogistic pattern of the poem, “To His Coy Mistress” bears testimony to the poet’s intellectual quality. The poem consists of three stanzas and so the construction conforms to the requirement of syllogism. Like a fine syllogism, the poem begins with “If” and proceeds to “But” and concludes in “Therefore.” In the first stanza, he tells us what would happen if they had enough time and space. But in the second stanza, he tells us that he hears the coming of the winged chariot of time and so they cannot spend their time. In the third and concluding stanza, the poet reaches the decision.
Andrew Marvell has not written a great number of successful love-poems to his credit perhaps because of his preoccupation with the theme of religion, god, and nature. But he will always be remembered for some of the best love lyrics of English literature.