Metaphysical Poetry

The term “metaphysical poets” was first used by Samuel Johnson (1744). The hallmark of their poetry is the metaphysical conceit, a reliance on intellectual wit, learned and sensuous imagery, and subtle argument. Although this method was by no means new, these men infused new life into English poetry by the freshness and originality of their approach. Nowadays the term is used to group together certain 17th-century poets, usually John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Andrew Marvell and a few others.

Metaphysical poetry investigates the relation between rational, logical argument on the one hand and intuition or “mysticism” on the other, often depicted with sensuous detail. Reacting against the deliberately smooth and sweet tones of much 16th-century verse, the metaphysical poets adopted a style that is energetic, uneven, and rigorous. In his important essay, “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), T. S. Eliot argued that their work fuses reason with passion; it shows a unification of thought and feeling which later became separated into a “dissociation of sensibility”.

Metaphysical poetry uses of ordinary speech mixed with metaphors, puns and paradoxes.   Abstruse terminologies often drawn from science or law are used in abundance.  Often poems are presented in the form of an argument. In love poetry, the metaphysical poets often draw on ideas from Renaissance Neo-Platonism – for instance, to show the relationship between the soul and body and the union of lovers' souls.  The poems often aim at a degree of psychological realism when referring to emotions. 

Metaphysical conceits are of Central importance in metaphysical poetry. A (metaphysical) conceit is usually classified as a subtype of metaphor – an elaborate and strikingly unconventional or supposedly far-fetched metaphor, hyperbole, contradiction, simile, paradox or oxymoron causing a shock to the reader by the obvious dissimilarity, “distance” between or stunning incompatibility of the objects compared. One of the most famous conceits is John Donne's A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, a poem in which Donne compares two souls in love to the points on a geometer's compass.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was the most influential metaphysical poet. His personal relationship with spirituality is at the center of most of his work, and the psychological analysis and sexual realism of his work marked a dramatic departure from traditional, genteel verse. His early work, collected in Satires and in Songs and Sonnets, was released in an era of religious oppression. Holy Sonnets contains many of Donne’s most enduring poems.

George Herbert (1593 – 1633) is recognized as "a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist.” Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits. In 1633 all of Herbert's poems were published in The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations.

As a metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)  is associated with John Donne and George Herbert. His poems include To His Coy Mistress, The Garden, An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland, The Mower's Song and the country house poem Upon Appleton House. Marvell's most celebrated lyric, To His Coy Mistress, combines an old poetic conceit (the persuasion of the speaker's lover by means of a carpe diem philosophy) with Marvell's typically vibrant imagery and easy command of rhyming couplets. Other works incorporate topical satire and religious themes.

Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695) is considered one of the major Metaphysical Poets, whose works ponder on one's personal relationship to God. He shares Herbert's preoccupation with the relationship between humanity and God. It was not until Vaughan's conversion and the writing of Silex Scintillans that he received significant acclaim. He was greatly indebted to George Herbert, who provided a model for Vaughan's newly founded spiritual life and literary career, in which he displayed "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling”, derived from Herbert.

Richard Crashaw (1613 – 1649) owed all the basis of his style to Donne. His originality was one of treatment and technique and he carried English prosody to a higher refinement, a more glittering felicity, than it had ever achieved. Among the secular poems of Crashaw the best are Music's Duel,  and Wishes to his supposed Mistress.

Metaphysical poets created a new trend in history of English literature. These poems have been created in such a way that one must have enough knowledge to get the actual meaning. Metaphysical Poets made use of everyday speech, intellectual analysis, and unique imagery. The creator of metaphysical poetry John Donne along with his followers is successful not only in that Period but also in the modern age. Metaphysical poetry takes an important place in the history of English literature for its unique versatility and it is popular among thousand of peoples till now.

Last modified: Friday, 21 July 2017, 1:34 AM