The poem’s speaker is an anonymous lover who contemplates the nature and definition of love. He begins by saying that his love is both “rare” and “strange” because it was “begotten by Despair / Upon Impossibility.” He goes on to claim that only despair could reveal to him “so divine a thing” as this love, because “Hope” could never come near it. He imagines that he “quickly might arrive” where this love is leading him, but finds that his soul’s inclinations are thwarted by Fate, who “drives iron wedges” between the speaker and the object of his affection.
According to the speaker, the problem is that Fate cannot allow “Two perfect loves” to come together. Doing so would overthrow Fate’s power, so Fate has placed the two lovers into physically separate spaces, like “distant poles” that can never come together. They must remain separate, the speaker laments, unless “giddy Heaven” falls or the entire world is suddenly “cramped into a planisphere.” The speaker then compares the lovers’ connection to two infinite lines, each of which forms a perfect circle. Because these lines are parallel, though, they shall never intersect. Therefore, the speaker concludes, Fate has enviously thwarted the love that binds him to his beloved, and the only way they can be together is in a union of their minds.
Scholars often connect Marvell’s “The Definition of Love” to John Donne’s metaphysical lyrics, due to the elaborate imagery and the neo-platonic implications of love between souls or minds that is distinct from the physical body. The poem constitutes an exploration of love by depicting two perfect yet irreconcilable loves – the love of the speaker, and the love of his lover. These two loves are perfect in themselves and they face each other in an opposition of perfection, but, according to the speaker’s formulation, that same condition prevents them from meeting in the physical sphere. The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which features four lines of iambic tetrameter that rhyme alternately, in a pattern of ABAB, CDCD, and so forth.
In the first stanza, the speaker makes an odd and striking claim – that his love is so unique and “rare” it must have been born of “Despair” and “Impossibility,” which is a surprisingly dark and tragic formulation of love. The speaker goes on to explain that only despair could have revealed this love to him, because it shows both the utter perfection of the love he feels, and at the same time, the impossibility of its physical fulfillment. Hence, the speaker constructs an oxymoron – “Magnanimous Despair” – as an attempt to bring his reader closer to understanding the nature of his love.
Marvell further develops the speaker's frustration at being separated from his beloved in stanza three, where the speaker elaborates upon the role of Fate. The speaker claims that his perfect love would lead him to the place where his “extended soul is fixed,” or in other words, would lead his body to the location where his soul is already connected to his beloved's. However, Fate actively prevents this by erecting an “iron wedge” between the two lovers. The speaker then explains that Fate keeps the lovers from each other because it perceives their union as usurping its power. The speaker represents Fate as a tyrant with a “jealous eye” who desires to maintain control over the two perfect loves.
He goes on to say that Fate has given “decrees of steel” that place the two lovers distantly apart, which effectively prevents a perfect union of both their physical and spiritual love. The symbols of an iron wedge and a steel decree suggest Fate’s dominion over the hard, physical realities of the body, which contrasts sharply with the speaker’s claim that the lovers enjoy metaphysical perfection in their own transcendent love.
Next, the speaker attempts to imagine the only conditions in which he and his lover might be physically united. These include the Heavens falling, an earthquake collapsing the Earth, or the entire planet being compressed into a flat plane. The speaker uses the paradoxical term “Planisphere” for this imagined event. Each of these conditions is impossible, and as the speaker acknowledges this fact, he goes on to construct a new, geometrical conceit that contrasts the love of the speaker and his lady with a more typical love. Their love is like a pair of parallel lines – infinitely perfect as they extend - yet they shall never meet. Meanwhile, common love is less perfect, like a pair of oblique lines, which by nature will eventually intersect.
In the final stanza, Marvell delivers two definitions of the speaker’s love: it is both “the conjunction of the mind” and the “opposition of the stars.” This two-part definition encapsulates the divided nature of their love. On one hand, the image of conjunction suggests proximity and harmony, while the image of opposition implies that their love can never be fully realized. This idea implicitly refers to the power of Fate in the physical universe, which in this case, prevents the lovers from meeting on the plane of material embodiment.