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note on Metaphysical poetry


Metaphysical poetry began early in the Jacobean Age, i.e. in the last stage of the Age of Shakespeare. Donne was the leader and founder of the Metaphysical school of poetry. He led the new way of writing poetry as reaction against the conventional poetry of the Spenserians. It was Dr. Johnson who for the first time ascribed the title of "Metaphysical poets" to Donne and his followers who included George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Richard Crashaw, John Cleveland, Abraham Cowley, and a few others. Dr. Johnson, of course, got the suggestion for this label from Dryden's statement. "Donne affects the metaphysics." 

Salient features of Metaphysical poetry

The following are the main characteristics of the Metaphysical poetry of this age: (i) Metaphysical poetry is chiefly lyrical, (ii) in theme it is religious or amatory, (iii) there is much metrical facility, even in complicated lyrical stanza, (iv) the poetic style is sometimes almost startling in its sudden beauty; there are unexpected turns of language and figures of speech.

Characteristically metaphysical poetry reveals a depth of philosophy, a subtlety of reasoning, a mingling of the homely and the sublime, the light and the serious. Probably the most distinctive feature of the metaphysicals is their imagery, which is almost invariably unusual, striking, often breath-taking but sometimes far-fetched and fantastic. Generally metaphysical poetry is marked by such characteristics as wit, conceit, ratiocination, blend of emotion and intellect, use of hyperboles, imagery, expressions in dramatic and colloquial tones. etc.

Wit is the dominant feature of metaphysical poetry. Wit may by explained as the saying of fine sparkling things which startle and amuse. It is an intellectual activity which consists in the poet's perception of similarity in dissimilarity and the ingenuity with which he brings together and combines opposites, whether in words or ideas. Wit is of immense variety. It is found in the use of puns, wordplay, oxymoron, paradox, etc. Thus, in Donne's poem, "The Canonization" wit is found in his reference to the King's real and his stamped face: 

"Observe his Honour or his Grace, Or the King's real, or his stamped face."

As a courtier, a man may watch the real face of the king or he may enter a business and during his dealing with money he may see the king's image stamped on coins.

Conceit is another remarkable feature of metaphysical poetry. A conceit is basically a simile or a comparison between two dissimilar things. According to Dr. Johnson, in a conceit the most heterogeneous ideas are "yoked by violence together." This kind of comparison is highly exaggerated, fantastic and far-fetched, and it gives rise to an image. The most famous and striking conceit is the comparison of a man who travels and his beloved who stays, to a pair of compasses in "A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning". 

Metaphysical poetry is the product of both intellect and emotion. Neither strong feeling nor intellect by itself would make good poetry. The brain and the soul work together in the creation of a metaphysical poem. For example, each of Donne's love poems arises out of a particular emotion but he explains that emotion with the help of his intellect.

To sum up, the metaphysical poetry is concerned with the fundamental problems of the nature of the universe and the role of human spirit in the great drama of existence. In this sense, the poetry of Donne and his successors may certainly be called metaphysical because metaphysical and religious concerns do appear in it.

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