English 251q dr. J. Morillo February 4, 2003

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English 251Q

Dr. J. Morillo

February 4, 2003

Love, Humourously Defined

Love, possibly the most inconsistent and unexplainable force at work in the universe: to define Love is a task of Herculean proportions. Regardless, poets strive to take on this difficult chore, and with every poet comes a unique understanding of Love based upon differing personalities and experiences. In Mary Wroth’s “Song: Love what art thou?” and Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love,” the imagery and use of figurative language in these two differing works on Love suggest an essential difference in the qualities of the poets, but not necessarily the most obvious difference: their gender.

Wroth’s “Song” depicts a love of instability. Her poem, like its subject, is a question with many answers. Described as both “light and fair” (6) and “dead in an hour” (12), love takes on a deceptive personality. Wroth writes of how love catches “fools” (5) in its “net”(4) and how it only remains as “firm as bubbles made by rain” (17). This and other examples of nature imagery, such as a comparison of love to the weather (7-9), define love as a chaotic force of nature, beautiful yet temporary. Love’s “childish” and “vain” (16) qualities picture how love, like a naughty toddler, can be fickle and selfish. Love enters and leaves minds at its own pleasure, leading one to lofty dreams and leaving one in pain and “coldness” (9). This tone of overall irritation and disappointment in love suggests that Wroth writes from her own ill-fated experience with it. Perhaps at one time she fell into love’s trap only to find her expectations unfulfilled and her heart broken. Perhaps Wroth’s ideal partner turned out to be less than adequate, and her love for him changed from blessing to curse. Whatever her own experience, Wroth’s metaphorical answers to “Love what art thou?” suggest that when one hopes for love, one hopes for its “virtues” and instead receives its “foul faults” (line19).

While Wroth answers her own question, Marvell, on the other hand, gives “The Definition of Love” by not defining it. Instead of listing its qualities, his poem regales Love’s interaction with the other abstract forces of the universe. Instead of hoped for, as in Wroth’s work, Love is conceived from a union of “Despair upon Impossibility” (4). In a stroke of irony, Marvell writes how a “Magnanimous Despair” (5) for love made it come into being, while the overrated and “feeble Hope” (7) is shown as inadequate in the pursuit of love, a bird of only “tinsel wing” (8). But after love’s birth, when the speaker discovers his soul-mate, the point where his “extended soul is fixed” (9), he meets an adversary: Fate. In the way of pagan deities, Fate sees the speaker’s match of two perfect loves with “jealous eyes” (13), for such a strong union would be so unchangeable as to defy the will of Fate. To prevent this deposition of her “tyrannic power” (16), Fate places the two Loves as far apart as the two poles of the Earth. Only a disaster powerful enough to change the shape of the planet could Marvell’s speakers loves together.

And it is from this extended metaphor of love and the shape of the Earth that makes his definition of love apparent. When the Earth becomes “cramped into a planisphere” (24), as in a 2-dimensional map, the two points of North and South pole become two parallel lines, one at the top and the other at the bottom of the page. Like lines of latitude on a map, the speaker and his love upon these poles are both parallel and straight, but they never meet. Crooked, “oblique” (25) loves, like lines of longitude on a map, can in “every angle greet” (26); but this ease of the loves’ unity is based upon the understanding that the loves are necessarily bent and imperfect. Because of Fate’s way of making two perfect loves so distant, infinite, and parallel, those two perfect loves can never intersect.

In this cartographer’s language, Marvell’s final message becomes nearly the same as Wroth’s; for though they define and present Love with very dissimilar tones and personalities, these different strings weave into the same cloth. Essentially, both Marvell and Wroth both define the lack of perfection in love. Wroth approaches this conclusion by stating Love’s faults, shortcomings, and inconsistencies, and Marvell writes how perfection in love is necessarily futile. But why do they come to this conclusion from such different foundations? It is not a difference in the gender of the poets, but a difference in their humours.

Wroth’s and Marvell’s experiences with Love are not specific to their sexes. Either a man or woman has the capability to be deceived by love and left irritated at it. Either a man or woman could despair for a perfect love, find it, and then realize its incompatibility with reality. Although some gender-specific archetypes such as the innocent girl cheated and the romantic male unsatisfied might have some bearing upon this difference in approach, the better explanation of Mary Wroth’s and Andrew Marvell’s discrepancies is one of an ancient pseudo-science: an examination of their humours and elements. According to Greek philosophers and medieval astrologers, the major humours of the body control a personality. Wroth’s humour was most likely of fire and choler; the humour that brings about a pro-active and hot-tempered nature. Her poem reflects this, and she describes love likewise. She comes to her conclusion about love in the first line, and the rest of the poem is but a series of descriptions to support the idea that love is but “a vain thought” (1). Her words are accusative and harsh, giving Love only a few brief instances of positive traits and immediately attacking them with more negative ones. This anger in Wroth’s writing is typical of choleric humour; Marvell’s calculative and despairing view suggests an opposite humour, melancholy. Instead of defining Love through decision and justification, Marvell draws upon deliberation and contemplation. He uses Love’s geography, Love’s history, and Love’s battle with Fate to produce a well-thought-out, almost mathematical definition of perfect love. Also typical of melancholy is finding some comfort in despair, for negative expectations are more often fulfilled than those of an optimistic nature.

To Love and humours, “much more of thee may be said” (Wroth 23). So many approaches to the definition have been made and will be made; Mary Wroth’s and Andrew Marvell’s are but two of an infinite number. But despite their difference in gender and humour, both poets recognize the importance of love. And both write on an unsatisfied need: to define and possess that which can neither be perfectly defined nor perfectly possessed.

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