Soul’s Story: The Use of Conceit in Marvell’s “On a Drop of Dew”
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Poetry is a craft of near-paradox. Poets often say that they aim to encase the abstract within the concrete, describe without adjectives or adverbs, and expound upon concepts with the utmost concision. To meet these formidable challenges, they keep several important literary devices at their disposal, one of which is the conceit. Commonly defined as an elaborately extended metaphor, the conceit often allows poets to capture complicated ideas through comparison with images closer to readers’ everyday experiences. If the concept that the poet wishes to illustrate comes from the theological or philosophical fields, figurative language like the conceit can rescue the poet from didacticism as well as opacity. “On a Drop of Dew,” a short poem by the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, employs the conceit for just this purpose. Marvell’s use of the conceit allows him convey the Christian story of the human soul in his poem with subtlety and simplicity, from its birth in heaven through its placement on earth and eventual reunion with God in heaven.
As part of his conceit, Marvell spends the first half of “On a Drop of Dew,” relating a simple story drawn from nature, the story of a dewdrop resting on a flower. Without initially revealing what the dewdrop represents, he traces its “life” from the time it is “[s]hed from the bosom of the morn” (line 2) to the time “the skies exhale it back again” (18). He also incorporates personification into the conceit, describing the way the dewdrop “slight[s]” the flower on which it lies and rues its separation from the sky (9). To the way the dew beads on the petal, he lends emotion and motive: “careless of its mansion new,” the drop withdraws into itself, hoping to capture a part of the sky in...
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... miraculous to the nature of the soul.
Many people find theology a very esoteric field of study, and Christian doctrine regarding the life of the soul can seem quite difficult to comprehend for non-Christians and Christians alike. The conceit in “A Drop of Dew,” which employs common images and processes straight from the natural world, enables Marvell to sum up a commonly held view of the soul’s journey with creativity and cleverness. Its symbolic elements also help Marvell to evade avoid sounding either preachy or pedantic. It is this mastery of the conceit and other devices of figurative language, so delicately and feelingly demonstrated in “On a Drop of Dew,” that has made Marvell an enduring figure in the world of poetry.
Marvell, Andrew. “On a Drop of Dew.” “To His Coy Mistress” and Other Poems. Ed. Paul
Negri. Mineola: Dover, 1997.