Metaphysical Poetry€¦ · Metaphysical Poetry The Metaphysical poets were a loose group of...
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Metaphysical Poetry The Metaphysical poets were a loose group of similarly-minded poets working in the 16th and 17th
centuries. They rebelled against the strict, structured nature of the sonnet form and began working
in their own ways, expressing novel ideas in inventive poetic forms. These poets also aimed at a less
polite, more colloquial and playful, entertaining style of writing. Some of them wrote in a distinctly
secular manner, focussing on love, sex and relationships. Other poets considered religious life and
love in great detail.
“Metaphysical” is drawn from two Greek words: “Meta”, meaning beyond and “Physika”, meaning
of the physical. This form of poetry aims to think and speak beyond the physical world. Most of
these poems therefore begin in the very real, visceral, physical world and then extend beyond this to
deal with life, love, morals, religion, time and existence. The poetry is very often compact in its ideas
and images; it employs analogy and has been described, over the years, as being very difficult and
dense in its content, images and ideas. Indeed, Jonson complained that many of Donne’s poems are
excessively difficult to understand. Jonson felt that Donne’s poems, some written to women, are too
difficult for women to understand!
Metaphysical poetry has several important features:
1] the conceit--"farfetched," "combination of dissimilar images," "heterogeneous ideas yoked by
violence together"—the conceits show far greater intellectuality than Petrarchan conceit.
2] complexity & obscurity:
4] exaggeration, hyperbole:
5] rebellion against Petrarchan and Elizabethan poetic conventions:
6] colloquial language:
7] natural speech rhythms or extreme distortions of metrical patterns--"modulation so imperfect
that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables":
8] irregular lines and stanzas:
9] argumentative form and content:
10] persona & situation--like dramatic monologue in many cases.
Metaphors are a popular way of compacting ideas in Metaphysical poetry. These poets drew
heavily from their time and built comparisons based on geography, exploration, new worlds
and ideas and conquering both new worlds and potential lovers. The metaphors created are
known for being unusual and interesting. These poets often yoked together strikingly
different images or ideas in metaphors. This unusual conceit is a hallmark of Metaphysical
John Donne 1572-1631
John Donne was one of the leading metaphysical poets of the Renaissance, with a hugely
varied body of work ranging from sermons to sonnets, and elegies to pamphlets. A
contemporary of Shakespeare, he is known for both his love poetry and religious verse,
and often used complex conceits, such as extended
metaphors, with startling impact.
Donne was born in London in 1572 into a Catholic family at a
time when Catholicism was illegal. He studied at both Oxford
and Cambridge but could not graduate because of his faith.
After university he became a soldier and fought on the
continent and then returned to a promising civil service
career. But Donne effectively stalled his own career when he
secretly married his employer's teenage niece, Anne More.
Her uncle was furious and had him arrested. Though he was
later released from prison, he found it hard to find
employment, and over the coming years he would be unable
to support his increasingly large family without charitable
When King James I came to power, Donne converted to the
Church of England and moved towards religious poetry,
writing prose attacking the Catholic faith. In 1615, in a final change of fortune, Donne
took holy orders and rose quickly in his profession to become the Dean of St Paul's
Cathedral in London. Towards the end of his life he wrote the famous Holy Sonnet X
(Death be not Proud). He died in 1631, and his work was never published in his lifetime.
No Man Is An Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
George Herbert 1593–1633
Nestled somewhere within the Age of Shakespeare and the Age of Milton is George
Herbert. There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary
career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from
his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical
pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex,
ever-qualified lyric contemplation rather than epic or dramatic mythmaking. This is the
stuff of humility and integrity, not celebrity. But even if Herbert does not appear to be
one of the larger-than-life cultural monuments of seventeenth-century England—a
position that virtually requires the qualities of irrepressible ambition and boldness, if not
self-regarding arrogance, that he attempted to flee—he is in some ways a pivotal figure:
enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and
important British devotional lyricist (religious poet) of this or any other time.
Herbert is also important, especially in the seventeenth century, not only as a poet but
as a cultural icon, an image of religious and political stability held up for emulation
during tumultuous times. Much of his early popularity owes something to the carefully
crafted persona of "holy Mr Herbert" put forth by the custodians of his literary works and
reputation. Herbert is sketched as one who exchanged the advantages of noble birth and
worldly preferment for the strains of serving at "Gods Altar," one whose "obedience and
conformitie to the Church and the discipline thereof was singularly remarkable," and
whose "faithfull discharge" of the holy duties to which he was called "make him justly a
companion to the primitive Saints, and a pattern or more for the age he lived in."
Herbert becomes a model of harmonious, orderly, non-controversial devotion for whom
faith brought answers and commitment to the social establishment, not divisive
questions and social fragmentation.
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk'd with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
Andrew Marvell 1621-1678
Andrew Marvell was an English metaphysical poet, Parliamentarian, and the son of a
Church of England clergyman (also named Andrew Marvell). As a metaphysical poet, he
is associated with John Donne and George Herbert. He was a colleague and friend of
Marvell was born in Winestead-in-Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire, near the city of
Kingston upon Hull. The family moved to Hull when his father was appointed Lecturer at
Holy Trinity Church there, and Marvell was educated at Hull Grammar School. A secondary school in the city is now named after him.
Marvell’s poetry is often witty and full of elaborate conceits in the elegant style of the
metaphysical poets. Many poems were inspired by events of the time, public or
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Thomas Carew 1595-1640
Thomas Carew, was born in 1594/95, in West Wickham, Kent, England. He died on
March the 22nd, 1639/40, in London. Carew was an English poet and first of the Cavalier
Educated at the University of Oxford and at the Middle Temple, London, Carew served as
secretary at embassies in Venice, The Hague, and Paris. In 1630 Carew received a court
appointment and became server at table to the king. The Earl of Clarendon considered
him as “a person of pleasant and facetious wit” among a brilliant circle of friends that
included the playwright Ben Jonson.
Carew’s poems, circulated in manuscript, were amatory lyrics or occasional poems
addressed to members of the court circle, notable for their ease of language and skilful
control of mood and imagery. His longest poem was the sensuous Rapture, but his lyrics
are among the most complex and thoughtful of any produced by the Cavalier poets. He
was a meticulous workman, and his own verses addressed to Ben Jonson show that he
was proud to share Jonson’s creed of painstaking perfection. He greatly admired the
poems of John Donne, whom he called king of “the universal monarchy of wit” in his
elegy on Donne (deemed the outstanding piece of poetic criticism of the age). He
translated a number of the Psalms and is said to have died with expressions of remorse
for a life of libertinism. His poems were published a few weeks after his death.
A Divine Mistress
In Nature's pieces still I see
Some error that might mended be;
Something my wish could still remove,
Alter or add; but my fair love
Was fram'd by hands far more divine,
For she hath every beauteous line:
Yet I had been far happier,
Had Nature, that made me, made her.
Then likeness might (that love creates)
Have made her love what now she hates;
Yet I confess I cannot spare
From her just shape the smallest hair;
Nor need I beg from all the store
Of heaven for her one beauty more.
She hath too much divinity for me:
You gods, teach her some more humanity.
Di Cesare, M A (eds) George Herbert and the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets. (1978) Norton and