Metaphysical poetry is a type of poetry characterized by intellectual and philosophical themes, use of conceits (extended metaphors), and exploration of the spiritual and physical aspects of love.
The Metaphysical Poets
Metaphysical poets are a group of 17th-century English poets who explored the nature of the world and human life using images that were astonishing to the contemporary readers. Their poetry is marked by the use of colloquial diction, ingenious (inventive) conceits, irony and metrically flexible lines. They mostly wrote about love, religion, and morality making unusual comparisons frequently employing unexpected similes and metaphors in displays of wit. Metaphysical poets were bold in using literary devices like obliquity, irony, and paradox. They also use direct language and rhythms resembling natural speech.
John Dryden was the first to use the term ‘metaphysicals’ while critiquing John Donne. Dryden, in his Discourse Concerning Satire comments on Donne claiming that his poetry:
affects the metaphysics… in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign;… and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts”.
While Dryden used the term to describe Donne’s poetry, Samuel Johnson extended it to a group of poets. In his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (aka the Life of the Poets), a collection of short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets mostly living in the 18th century, Johnson states:
About the beginning of the 17th century appeared a race of writers that maybe termed the metaphysical poets”.
Both Dryden and Johnson used the term metaphysical in a derogatory sense to criticize the excesses of this group of poets. Johnson believed that these poets used intricacies to showcase their learning. Commenting on their poetry, Johnson states that in their poetry:
the most heterogeneous ideas were yoked by violence together”.
Although these poets were not fairly acknowledged by their contemporary readers, they raised into prominence in the 20th century because of the praise from T.S. Eliot. John Donne is considered to be the chief among the metaphysicals, others being Andrew Marvel, John Cleveland and Abraham Cowley as well as, to a lesser extent, George Herbert and Richard Crashaw. According to Ian Ousby, a British historian, author and editor, these poets did not belong to a school of poetry, rather were united by:
common characteristics of wit, inventiveness and a love for elaborate stylistic manoeuvres”.
Features of Metaphysical Poetry
Metaphysical poetry is characterised by: (a) the inventive use of conceits, and (b) a greater emphasis on the spoken rather than lyrical quality of their verse. It is a unique poetic style known for blending deep emotions with clever intellect. It uses a technique called “conceit,” where seemingly unrelated ideas or objects are yoked (means “joined”) together so that the reader is startled out of his complacency and forced to think through the argument of the poem. Instead of just expressing feelings, metaphysical poetry dissects them, digging into the poet’s thoughts. Following are the most conspicuous characteristic features of Metaphysical Poetry:
1. Intricate Poetic Style: Elizabethans wrote poetry that was simple and straightforward. They are marked for their opulent (means “rich”) lyrics rich in melody and beauty. Metaphysicals made their poetry rugged, coarse, and complicated deliberately as an attempt to break from tradition. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by a subtle, complex and concentrated thought and style. As a result of the departure from Elizabethan style, the metaphysical poetry became more idiosyncratic (means “peculiar”). The style of Donne, for example, can be distinguished from that of Herbert and Herbert’s from Crashaw’s and so on.
2. Intellectual Appeal: The metaphysical poets were highly educated who were aware of the new discoveries and inventions taking place in the various fields of knowledge e.g. history, geography, astronomy, alchemy mathematics etc. and they employed all their learning in creating unusual images taken from these various field. It is said images that these poets used their poetry to show their learning. Their poetry was, therefore, purely intellectual that made an appeal to the intellectuals. Their thoughts were often new but rarely natural. Interestingly, they devoted their intellect and imagination to reflection upon God and their relation to Him.
3. Metaphysical Conceits: The metaphysicals were able to acknowledge nuanced similarities between apparently dissimilar objects. They employed “far-fetched” (means “difficult to believe”) imagery in their poetry which was difficult to understand for the reader. It required a lot of “strain” to decode the relationship between the compared objects. Such bold and ingenious (means “original and inventive”) comparisons between dissimilar objects are termed as “metaphysical conceits”. Johnson called it “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images”. For example, in his poem, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, John Donne compares the two lovers to the legs of a compass:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.”
4. Religion and Mysticism: It is not coincident that the metaphysical poets were called mystical (means “spiritual”) poets. In the poetry of Donne, Herbert, Crashaw etc. God and His relation with the world is often the most dominant idea. They often mixed the physical with the spiritual and sensual with the pious as Donne equates the loving couples to “saints” who has been canonized (means “officially declare to be Saint”).
The metaphysicals believed the spiritual world to be the real world, and that physical world is merely a shadow. Their mystic vision pierces through the shadows of the world and interprets them as symbols.
5. Striking and Dramatic: Metaphysical poets made use of various techniques to make their poetry striking and dramatic. Their poems often opened abruptly and aggressively. They made use of puns, paradoxes, comparisons and stunning imagery etc. to make their poems astonishing. Paradoxes were most commonly used as in Donne’s sonnet Batter my Heart, the speaker appeals to God:
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral (enslave) me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish (rape) me.”
The metaphysical poets and their poetry received unprecedented appraisal as a result of T.S. Eliot’s path breaking critical essay The Metaphysical Poets. Eliot argues that metaphysical poets like Donne fused thought and emotion. There is an ‘association of sensibility’ in their poetry, which later changed into ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in the later poets. Comparing the metaphysicals with the Victorian poets, Eliot states:
Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but did not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of the rose. A thought to Donne was an experience, it modified his sensibility”.
So, for metaphysical poetry, it can be said that it is a kind of poetry which has very less that makes an appeal to heart. It is the poetry of the intellect indulging in far-fetched expressions and conceited thoughts. It is the wit that predominates metaphysical poetry and emotions assume a secondary significance, thus making the metaphysical poetry different from earlier Elizabethan poetry. It needs a significant amount of effort and strain on the part of the reader to enjoy metaphysical poetry. It remains obscure and vague.
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