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Home » » What is metaphysical poetry ? Poets and Characteristics of metaphysical poetry

We are going to take a closer look at the history of the term "metaphysical poetry" and some examples of this curious and enigmatic school of early modern poetry in this post. Extensive similes and metaphors, extended poetic conceits and paradoxes, informal speech, and an interest in examining the interaction between the physical and spiritual world (and between the big and the small) are all common characteristics of metaphysical poetry, which we will discuss in this brief introduction. 

The term "metaphysical" comes from this last one: from metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that studies, among other things, the connection between mind and matter or between human consciousness and the physical world. Curiously, the word "metaphysical" comes from the Greek word for "after physics," but it more specifically means "after Aristotle's work on physics." This is probably because philosophy students were only supposed to delve into the more complex and abstract world of metaphysics once they had mastered Aristotle on physics.)

Poets and Characteristics of metaphysical poetry

John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan are poets who are associated with metaphysical poetry. It is said that John Donne was the first metaphysical poet. Donne's genius for original, intellectually challenging poetry certainly helped to set the standard for subsequent poetry. Donne started writing at the end of the 16th century, but metaphysical poetry would peak in the following century.) 

Poetic metaphysics: characteristics and features The following are important characteristics of metaphysical poetry: difficult mental and emotional situations; metaphors and similes that are unusual and sometimes made up on purpose; and the notion that the spiritual and physical worlds are interconnected. 

Metaphysical poets often give abstract ideas concrete form through their unusual images and comparisons because they are interested in the interaction between the world of the mind (or spirit or soul) and the physical world "out there." So, for example, Andrew Marvell (1621–1788) wrote in his poem "The Definition of Love" about how, despite being made for each other, he and his beloved are doomed to never be together:

Oblique loves can greet themselves from any angle, 

just like lines do

Yet, our own so really equal,

However endless can never meet.

Therefore, the conjunction of the mind and opposition of the stars is the love that binds us, but fate so enviously debars us.

Is this an illustration of "star-crossed lovers" like in Romeo and Juliet? Although Marvell does not specify the reasons why he and his love cannot consummate their relationship, he cleverly employs the image of two parallel lines to convey the idea that, despite being perfectly suited to each other, they cannot be one. You see, parallel lines are a perfect match because they run parallel, so they are on the same path, but they can't meet because they are parallel. 

Cool, right? The two lovers in Marvell's poem are parallel lines because they are of the same gender; however, since homosexual love was outlawed in the seventeenth century, they must never "meet," according to some critics. 

However, Marvell has cleverly given concrete form to an abstract dilemma, regardless of how we interpret the image. Additionally, the love of paradox in metaphysical poetry is perfectly captured in his poem: He and his love were meant to be together, but because they are too "parallel" and "well-matched," they will never be together. 

The metaphysical conceit A conceit is a type of elaborate, extended metaphor or analogy. Metaphysical poets frequently employ conceits—unusual or unexpected analogies, metaphors, or similes—as a kind of extended metaphor. Therefore, John Donne (pictured right) uses the conceit of the flea biting first him and then his mistress to justify them going to bed together in his great seductive poem "The Flea": The flea's sharing of their blood has already brought them closer together:

Just look at this flea, and notice how little of what you deny about me is in it.

It first sucked me, and now it sucks you, mixing our blood in this flea;

You are aware that this cannot be described as a sin, shame, or loss of maidenhead; however, it does enjoy woo and is pampered with one blood made of two, which is unfortunately more than we would do.

In other words, according to Donne, the fact that the two of them sucked on a flea does not constitute a "sin" and does not make them feel any sense of shame. Therefore, why is it considered sinful to share a bed with another person? Donne is making use of the conceit of the flea to convey an extended argument that spans the entirety of the poem and is meant to convince the woman to get in bed with him.

The informal language used in a lot of metaphysical poetry is another thing that sets it apart from other verses of the time. Although John Donne's "The Canonization" shows how some metaphysical poets made good use of colloquial language, not all metaphysical poets used more informal or conversational diction in their works: 

Hold your tongue, for the love of God, and let me love, or chide my palsy, or my gout, or my five gray hairs, or my ruined fortune. With wealth, your state, and your mind with arts improve. Take you to a course, get you a place. Observe his honor, grace, or the real, or stamped face of the king. Consider; approve of what you want, and you'll let me love.

Donne's speech here, as evidenced by phrases like "For God's sake" and "what you will," is daringly down-to-earth for a poem written four hundred years ago. Although it may not strike us as particularly conversational now, Donne's speech here is daringly down-to-earth for a poem written four hundred years ago.

The use of elaborate and complex conceits in metaphysical poetry is in some ways at odds with such direct, unambiguous diction, but this argument makes both even more surprising and powerful.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), in his critical biography of the seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley in Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779-84), popularized the term "metaphysical poets," but he did not invent it. John Dryden, who wrote in 1692) about the "metaphysics" of Donne's poetry before Johnson did, and William Drummond of Hawthornden, who wrote about a group of poets around 1630, also used the term. Samuel Johnson used the term in a derogatory way: He complained that metaphysical poets' poetry "stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear" and disapproved of their "conceits." Johnson continued by writing:

Violence binds the most divergent ideas together; For allusions, comparisons, and illustrations, nature, and art are plucked; their subtlety and intelligence both teach and surprise; However, the reader frequently considers his improvement to be priceless and, despite occasional admiration, is rarely satisfied. However, great effort guided by great skills never completely vanishes: Even though they frequently misjudged things, they occasionally discovered surprising truths: Even if their ideas were far-fetched, they were frequently well worth the journey. 

Therefore, even Johnson, who was skeptical of metaphysical poetry because it appeared artificial and contrived, had to admit that metaphysical poets occasionally hit the mark and that their contrived imagery and conceits were frequently worth the effort of unraveling and interpreting. Conclusion Thus, metaphysical poetry frequently explores or frequently argues a position about "big" topics, such as love, death, sex, the afterlife, or even what lies beyond our own world (Donne was particularly fond of using planetary imagery and the idea of space travel in his work). Metaphysical poetry also frequently uses elaborate imagery, complex conceits, and informal speech. Johnson acknowledged that while it can be difficult at times, it is worth persevering with. 


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