What is Metaphysical Poetry?

Though the name itself is a misnomer, but by the term "metaphysical poetry" we do not only understand the poetry written by John Donne and a few other followers, including George Herbert, John Cleveland, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Abraham Cowley in the 17th century.

There are many features of the poetry of this movement, among which the use of metaphors and allusions from ‘metaphysical’ sources of contemporary knowledge and science is just one feature, and in fact, not even an important or defining feature. The term ‘metaphysical’ got prevalence after it was derogatively used by Samuel Johnson, who seriously objected to the use of ‘metaphysical’ metaphors and allusions in love lyrics. It was Dryden, who had first criticized Donne as “affecting the metaphysical” instead of pleasing the female ears with graceful metaphors of traditional lyric poetry. Johnson had picked Dryden’s phrase to name them, scornfully! The great change in the poetic taste in 1660 had thrown Metaphysical poetry out of fashion. Donne’s poetry was reinstated to its present status by T. S. Eliot in the nineteen twenties.

Literally “meta” means “beyond” and “physics” means “physical nature”. Ever since the “Metaphysical” has been used for Donne and his followers. However, the term is an unfortunate one, for it implies a process of dry reasoning, a speculation about the nature of the universe, the problems of life and death etc. Donne’s poetry is not metaphysical in the true sense of the world. His poetry does not expound any philosophical system of the universe; rather it is as much concerned with his emotions and personal experience as any other poetry. No doubt, there is much intellectual analysis of “emotion” and “experience”, but this by itself cannot be called metaphysical. The poetry of the school of Donne is not metaphysical as far as its content is concerned.

Donne’s poetry may be called “metaphysical” only as far as its technique or style is concerned. It is heavily overloaded with “conceits”, which may be defined as the excessive use of over-elaborated similes and metaphors, drawn from the most far fetched, remote and unfamiliar sources. Poets have always perceived similarity between dissimilar objects and used similes and metaphors to convey their perception of that similarity. The peculiarity of the metaphysical lies in the fact that: (1) They Use figures of speech excessively. (2) Their similes and metaphors are far-fetched and often draw from the most unfamiliar sources. (3) Their similes are elaborated to the farthest limit. (4) The relationships they perceive are not obvious. They are difficult to understand. (5) Their images are logical and intellectual, rather than sensuous or emotional.

Metaphysical poetry is especially marked by its bold and ingenious conceits. It is also characterized by complexity and subtlety of thought and a playful intellect. It involves harsh and striking expression, and their being set in a dramatic situation is another feature. Colloquial diction together with rough speech-like rhythms is its important formal features. Frequent use of paradox and the use of register and metaphors from ‘any’ field of knowledge or experience along with witty turning and twisting of an idea are also other important features of Metaphysical poetry. Similarly, blending of emotion with intellect related to unified sensibility and the tendency to use “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together” as Samuel Johnson commented is its central features.

Published on 23 Jan. 2014 by Kedar Nath Sharma

Related Topics

John Donne: Biography

Andrew Marvell: Biography