Metaphysical Poetry and John Donne

Categories: John Donne

Define metaphysical poetry, its characteristics and John Donne as a metaphysical poet. The concept metaphysical deals with the philosophical view of the nature of things. Metaphysical poetry is often mentioned as poetry inspired by a philosophical concept of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence. Metaphysical poetry is involved with the whole experience of man, but the intelligence, learning and seriousness of the poets. Metaphysical poetry has an amazing power to explore and express ideas and feelings about the world and its diverse phenomena in a rational way to captivate the readers.

Metaphysical poems are lyric poems. A group of 17th-century poets, whose work is characterized by the use of complex and elaborate images or conceits, typically using an intellectual form of argumentation to express emotional states are denoted as metaphysical poets. Members of this group include John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick and Richard Crashaw who explored the nature of the world and human life, and who used images that were surprising at that time.

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Their poetic works have been abundant with the various perspectives of human life especially – like love, romance and sensuality; about man's relationship with God - the eternal perspective, and to a less extent, about pleasure, learning and art. The metaphysical poetry presents innovative and wondrous use of puns, paradoxes and employs cunning logical propositions; Metaphysical poem is brief but intense and embodies a style that is energetic and vigorous. A metaphysical poem is an expanded epigram, characterized by the striking use of wit and irony.

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Metaphysical poetry demands concentration. Moreover a metaphysical conceit makes the poetry more vibrant and notable. It is largely used to make a comparison of cleverness and justice and its invention is often more impressive than its justness. A metaphysical conceit is used to persuade, or to define, or to prove a point that’s why the metaphysical poetry is usually argumentative and persuasive. A metaphysical poet attempts to establish a logical connection between his emotional feelings and intellectual concepts with the help of far-fetched imagery.

The clever placement of unlike imagery, thought and emotions, contrasting pair of statements and unifying altogether makes it extraordinary. According to Ben Johnson; “the metaphysical poets showcase their knowledge and intelligence in their poetry. ” The metaphysical poets play with thoughts as the Elizabethans had played with words which clearly show the wit and intellect of poets. The controlled flow of emotions is the exhibition of the potential the poets carry to express feelings in controlled language. Metaphors, similes and personifications are significant elements of metaphysical poetry.

In addition to this a combination of sensibility portrays the marvelous fusion of head and heart, of intellect and emotion, of thought and passion. The metaphysical poets harmonized thoughts, reasoning, feelings and images. Being successful at merging diverse fields, metaphysical poetry also contains a sense of humour though it is not laughable but it brings a smile to the reader’s face. Metaphysical poetry is usually a dramatic monolog, the poet is addressed to the audience like in drama and every idea is for the audience.

Furthermore the abrupt openings of metaphysical poetry are therefore an attraction which creates an interest for the readers. The metaphysical poets were more interested in the use of intricate rhythm, realism and obscurity. Joan Bennet observes that in the case of Donne and his circle, the term that “metaphysical actually refers to the style rather than subject matter”. John Donne (1572-1631) was inclined to the personal and intellectual complexity and concentration that is displayed in his poetry. He is acknowledged as the master of metaphysical poetry.

John Donne was Born in London into a prosperous Roman Catholic family, at a time when England was staunchly anti-Catholic, Donne was forced to leave Oxford without a degree because of his religion. He studied law and, at the same time, read widely in theology in an attempt to decide whether the Roman or the Anglican Church was the true Catholic Church . In the meantime, he became known as a witty man of the world and the author of original, often dense, erotic poems. Donne participated in two naval expeditions, he was briefly sent to prison for secretly marrying his patron's niece.

In 1615, at the age of forty-two, Donne accepted ordination in the Anglican Church. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the greatest preachers of his time. He was Dean of St. Paul's since 1621 until his death. John Donne is regarded as both the pioneer and the chief spokesman of metaphysical poetry. The importance of his innovation was recognized by Thomas Carew, who praised Donne as the monarch of wit who 'purged' /'The Muses' Garden', threw away 'the loose seeds / Of Servile imitation ... And fresh invention planted'.

But his poetry is also difficult and complicated. Donne adopts different oles and postures - the libertine rake, the devoted and constant lover and the cynic who feels cheated by his experience in love, the despairing sinner fearing damnation, and bold suitor, claiming his right to salvation. His poetry expresses radically contradictory views - of women, the body, and love. Donne's poetry about love and about his relation to God invites connections with his personal life, yet it resists attempts to read it biographically. His seventeenth-century biographer, Izaak Walton, assigned the secular love poetry to the youthful Donne and the religious poetry to the mature priest.

His notable works are The Good-Morrow, The Sunne Rising, Death Be Not Proud, Batter My Heart, The Canonization, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day , Twicknam Garden and The Anniversarie . The Songs and Sonnets explore man's relation with woman, seeing erotic love as one of the most important experiences of life. Donne’s love poetry describes passionate sexual love with vigor and intensity. There are far too many suitable poems to consider all in detail, but The Good-Morrow and The Sunne Rising belong together.

Whereas the Elegies in their political language and analogies often connect love and the political world, here there is a sharper opposition between the two spheres. The private little room of love (the microcosm) contrasts with the outside world of princes, explorers, lawyers, and merchants, who are all preoccupied with material concerns. “The Good-morrow” is a complex poem which moves around two central metaphors, of a pair of lovers walking into a new life together and of new world created by their mutual love. John Donne gave a poetic status to a simple idea in an argumentative way in a three stanza structure.

But the fluency of the stanza is leading to the brief penultimate line and final Alexandrine with its stately, measured quality. On (line-4) there is a reference to bible to the seven sleepers, /or snorted we in seven sleepers den/ metaphorically may be Donne and his beloved were sleeping. Furthermore in (lines 8-14) he claims that his experience of mutual love gives him a new perspective from which the rest of the world looks insignificant. The world of love contains everything of value; it is the only one worth exploring and possessing.

Donne uses conceits and metaphors to exhibit his knowledge of geography, which is evident by the reference to the sea voyagers, that the lovers are not interested in the new worlds and discoveries, they are happy with each other and they don’t want anything else. /Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, / Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown, / Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one/.

While the following lines /Where can we find two better hemispheres/Without sharp north, without declining west? Compares the world of the lovers in the geographical world that our world is full of love and our love for each other is true and never ending. Love creates its own perfect world, combined of two better hemispheres. Donne's keen interest in discovering, links him with important concerns of his age. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of exploration, both scientific and geographical. England also saw the emergence of modern, experimental science. The New World was being explored, and astronomical observations by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo led to the discovery of a new order of the heavens.

Donne telescoped images and draws references from diverse spheres of cosmology, geography, science, philosophy, alchemy, theology, sea-voyages, mythology, religion, law and even from colonial enterprise so far as Britain was then emerging as the greatest empire through colonial expansion in different countries. Certain images or ideas recur so often as to seem typical: kingship and rule; subjectivism ("one little room an everywhere" "nothing else is"); alchemy - especially the mystical beliefs associated with elixir and quintessence and cosmology, both ancient and modern (references both to spheres and to the world of "sea-discoverers").

Another love sonnet by Donne “The Sun Rising” is a dramatic monologue addressed to the sun and the beloved. Here Donne uses personification metaphors and similes to make it interesting and attractive. Sun and ants are personified and different images are used (lines 5-10) like schoolboys, factory workers, huntsman, life of London and the royal class. There is a conceit where beloved’s beautiful eyes are compared to India (undiscovered beauty) and the sun can see that if India is as beautiful as his beloved’s eyes or his beloved’s eyes are more beautiful, this far-fetched conceit illustrates Donne’s wit and intellect.

There is a metaphor where the beloved is compared to the states and princess/she is all states, and all princes, I, nothing else/ it gives the idea that for the poet, the beloved is the entire world, royalty, majestic and grand and maybe the sun also believes that. Hence the microcosmic world of love becomes larger and more important than the macrocosm. /Princes doe…. All wealth alchimie/ here poet says that his beloved’s beauty is copied by princess and further a metaphor express that she is more honorable and worthy than wealth and gold and their love is all the wealth for them.

The concluding couplet/ Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere/ This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere/ brings forth a cosmic imagery to show how the microcosmic world of the lovers symbolizes the macrocosmic world. Donne's Divine Poems explore the man's relation with God, often describing it in terms of human love, and seeking to discover the true relation between man's love for God that promises salvation. Even with his Divine Poems exploring religious experience, Donne seeks to understand the relation between erotic and spiritual love.

In Donne's Divine Poems the sense of sinfulness is so great that the speaker insists it will take extraordinary efforts on God's part to save him. The demands for an intense, intimate relation with God are often couched in erotic language. Perhaps the most startling poem is the sonnet 'Batter my heart, three person'd God', in which the speaker metaphorically says that he is like a woman who loves one man (God) but is betrothed to another (Satan), and wants to be rescued, even by force. It’s a paradoxical poem with conceits and metaphors and one of the best known in his holy sonnets.

On (line 5-8) a conceit is used where the poet is comparing himself to a town which is conquered by enemies and he wants God to come to him and dominate him. Donne took ideas from the bible and Christian priests in his holy sonnets. Death Be Not Proud is Donne’s another argumentative poem, that death is not all-powerful, since it must eventually give way to eternal life, we fear as death is (for Christian believer) only form of sleep from which we have to awake on the day of judgment, when death will be abolished.

There is a reference to (Jesus Christ) in last 3 lines of (Death Be Not Proud) and the idea is taken from bible as he wants forgiveness with blood as each drop of Christ’s blood is salvation /why swell’st thou… death, thou shalt die/. The argument of the poem is that. There is another reference to the flood in Noah’s time/from rest and sleepe, … rest of their soules deliverie/(lines5-9). Donne in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning compares the lovers with a pair of compasses.

Such a far-fetched comparison to show the affinity and relationship of the lovers in terms of compasses is indeed astounding for which Samuel Johnson describes metaphysical conceit as a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently. Again in Twicknam Garden Donne makes another brilliant use of conceit whose ingenuity, Helen Gardner considers, is more striking than its justice: ? The spider Love, which transubstantiates all/ And can convert manna to gall.

In Donne’s poetry we will also examine a sudden dramatic beginning and finer exertion of colloquial language, as exemplified in the abrupt, conversational opening of The Canonization where the poet-lover admonishes the intruder in a colloquial tone for hampering their privacy: ? For God‘s sake hold your tongue, and let me love, / Or chide my palsy, or my gout/ My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout?. If we keenly observe, we will find that many of the tensions and contradictions in Donne’s poetry can be seen as deriving from wanting to satisfy conflicting human needs and desires.

Some poems like 'The Indifferent' or 'Community' insist on male independence and autonomy in erotic relations. Others like 'The Sun Rising' or 'The Canonization' show a strong desire for intimacy. Donne's poetry thus expresses the instability and infinity of human desire. For all its various attitudes, what is so wonderful about Donne is that, for all his realistic assessment of those limits, and for all the admissions of guilt about his immoderate desires, he never gives up wanting — and asking for -more. There are some other well-known contemporaries of John Donne like Andrew Marvell (1621–78), who is one of the English metaphysical poets.

Among his best-known poems is To His Coy Mistress, a clever and entertaining attempt to persuade a young woman to go to bed with him there is an explicit argument of this poem. Other works of Andrew Marvell include The Coronet, Bermudas, The Definition of Love and The Garden. Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) is another metaphysical poet, who wrote The Retreate, The World, Man and “They Are All Gone into the World of Light”. In The Retreate, Vaughan notes that "shadows of eternity are seen by him in natural phenomena such as clouds or flowers. His works express one’s personal relationship to God.

George Herbert another worth mentioning English poet and priest, is one of the metaphysical poets who dealt with religious themes such as doubt, suffering and joy, using simple language and metaphors. Herbert’s poetry is elegant as the result of art as a cultivated expression, but not forced, spiritual humility. He wrote Jordan in which there is religious devotion versus secular love, other works are The Pearl, The Collar, Discipline and Love. Following the steps of John Donne, Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) wrote many metaphysical poems like EpigrammaticumSacrorum Liber, Steps to the

Temple, Delights of the Muses, Carmen Deo Nostro and that’s why he is also short listed among the brilliant and illustrious metaphysical poets. His collection The Temple was published after his death. All these legends have played an important role in the survival of metaphysical poetry. Lastly, I will mention that metaphysical poetry gives us a new dimension to create a far-fetched link with the help of metaphysical conceits, which stimulates us to think beyond the surface level and show our wit and shrewdness.

I would praise all the metaphysical poets, for their commendable job and setting a new trend in English poetry. The tremendous versatility of Donne and his contemporaries paved the way for future generations to produce something as grand as metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry has its great importance in English literature due to its vivacious imagery and attractive techniques. Indeed, metaphysical poetry is a milestone achievement for metaphysical poets; it’s worth reading and worth admiring.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Metaphysical Poetry and John Donne. (2016, Nov 25). Retrieved from

Metaphysical Poetry and John Donne essay
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