Understanding Metaphysical Poetry


Students who learn literature sometimes find it difficult to unwrap the meaning of metaphysical poems. Therefore, it is necessary to know a bit of background related to metaphysical poetry. In this post you will be able to understand what is metaphysical poetry, how it came to the practice and what are the characteristics of it.   

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space. (Definitions from Oxford Languages)


Metaphysical poetry

The term ‘metaphysical poetry’ came into being after the poets, including John Donne (1572-1631), to whom the term is applied is dead. At first the term metaphysical poem was used to refer to Donne and others not as commendable or favourable term but as a sort of literary nick name. John Dryden writing about John Donne in 1693 had said John Donne affects the metaphysics not only in his satire, but also in his amorous verses. Later on Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) writing about John Donne and other poets of similar style says: “About the beginning of the seventeenth century there appeared a race of writers who may be termed the metaphysical poets. In fact, when Johnson said that he meant that he did not consider these poets truly metaphysical.

So the question is who were the metaphysical writers whom according to John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, Donne and others tried to imitate?

Latin writers Seneca (45 B.C. to 65 B.C.) Roman philosopher and writer of tragedies and Tacitus (C 55 – 120), the Roman Historian were at the time of Dryden and Johnson, held as the models of good writing. The writing was full of matter with less words, but hard to read. Poets like John Donne had tried to imitate the writing of these men in their poetry. They thought that good poetry should be close packed and dense with meaning, something to be chewed and digested.


The metaphysical approach to poetry

The new attitude to poetry should be understandable when we think of this period, this was Renaissance period (14th, 15th and 16th centuries) when everything was questioned and new meanings were forged in every sphere of knowledge. So in poetry traditional courtly love style was questioned. In place of its simplicity and musicality with no much meaning. The poet tried to infuse their poetry with meaning with “more matter and less words”. This attitude of giving more meaning and less words should be still clearer to us when we know that Renaissance was a revival of Greek and Roman literature. So, naturally the Renaissance poets like John Donne were influenced by classical Roman authors as Seneca and Tacitus and new meaning were forged in every sphere of knowledge.


Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

There are in fact a few notable ones in the characteristic qualities of metaphysical poetry. First: T.S. Eliot in his essay on metaphysical poets said “A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility.” This means that one of the most important characteristics of metaphysical poetry is its thought content. Unlike in Courtly Love poetry, in metaphysical poetry the poems are full of rich ideas. The reader is held to an idea or a line of argument. The reader has to pay attention to the thought or the argument and read on. This cohesive character of metaphysical poetry with a binding argument or an idea in fact made contemporaries of Donne and others call this poetry not metaphysical but ‘strong – lines.’

The second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is the presence of conceits. Here the word conceit is not to be taken in its modern sense as excessive pride in one’s position or abilities. Rather in metaphysical poetry it means a comparison and that too, a comparison of apparently unlike things. We have a typical conceit in Donne’s poem Valediction Forbidding Mourning when he compares the two lovers to a pair of compasses. in the poem Song: Sweetest Love I do not goe also there is a similar conceit when Donne compares himself as the husband to the sun.

Conceits were very common in Courtly Love poetry, but they were different from conceits in Donne’s poems in that they were conventional comparisons like comparing the face of the lady to a garden, the hair to threads of gold, eyes to brightest stars and cheeks to red roses. When Donne deviated from Courtly Love tradition he gave up conventional imagery and introduced new ones – unconventional imagery. The images Donne used had not been used before because no one had seen a comparison between them and their referents. So there is a certain freshness in Donne’s conceits.

The third characteristic of metaphysical poetry is that a poem arises from a moment of experience or situation. In other words, the subject of metaphysical poetry is always a real situation and not an artificial situation as in Courtly Love poetry. So all Donne’s poems are about moments or situations of real life like bidding farewell, experiencing real love, facing death or knowing God. It is therefore from moments or situations of real life that the need to argue or compare arises.

Reference: Rev. Fr. Herman Fernando (Critical Notes on A/L Poems)     

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