Metaphysical Poets

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Metaphysical Poets

The term metaphysical poets was coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know or read each other (Wikipedia). Their work is a blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity, characterized by conceit or “wit”—that is, by the sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things so that the reader is startled out of his complacency and forced to think through the argument of the poem. Metaphysical poetry is less concerned with expressing feeling than with analyzing it, with the poet exploring the recesses of his consciousness.

The boldness of the literary devices used—especially obliquity, irony, and paradox—is often reinforced by a dramatic directness of language and by rhythms derived from that of living speech. Esteem for Metaphysical poetry never stood higher than in the 1930s and ’40s, largely because of T.S. Eliot’s influential essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), a review of Herbert J.C. Grierson’s anthology Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century. In this essay Eliot argued that the works of these men embody a fusion of thought and feeling that later poets were unable to achieve because of a “dissociation of sensibility,” which resulted in works that were either intellectual or emotional but not both at once. In their own time, however, the epithet “metaphysical” was used pejoratively: in 1630 the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden objected to those of his contemporaries who attempted to “abstract poetry to metaphysical ideas and scholastic quiddities.”

At the end of the century, John Dryden censured Donne for affecting “the metaphysics” and for perplexing “the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts . . . with the softnesses of love.” Samuel Johnson, in referring to the learning that their poetry displays, also dubbed them “the metaphysical poets,” and the term has continued in use ever since. Eliot’s adoption of the label as a term of praise is arguably a better guide to his personal aspirations about his own poetry than to the Metaphysical poets themselves; his use of metaphysical underestimates these poets’ debt to lyrical and socially engaged verse. Nonetheless, the term is useful for identifying the often-intellectual character of their writing (Encyclopedia Britannica). Without doubt Samuel Johnson’s choice of the word metaphysical to describe the followers of Donne was directly influenced by these earlier usages (the Cleveland passage is quoted in Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 to illustrate the definition of ‘Metaphysicks’).

The category of poetry that indulged in metaphysics was a live one for later seventeenth-century poets, but for them metaphysics was a word used to mark the point at which strongly argued verse bordered on self-parody. There is more value than this, however, in the group name. Even in the earlier seventeenth century members of the core group of metaphysical poets were connected by a number of social, familial, and literary ties. Izaak Walton relates that Donne and George Herbert enjoyed ‘a long and dear friendship, made up by such a Sympathy of inclinations, that they coveted and joyed to be in each others Company’ (Walton, 57–8). Donne addressed poems to Herbert’s mother, Magdalen, and preached her funeral sermon, as well as writing a poem to Herbert’s brother, Edward, Lord Herbert. Herbert of Cherbury in turn read both Donne’s poetry and that of his own brother with care, and was a friend of Thomas Carew and Aurelian Townshend. Henry Wotton was the addressee of epistles in both verse and prose from his close friend John Donne, and at one point intended to write a life of Donne.

Henry King (whose father ordained John Donne) was in daily contact with Donne at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the older poet was dean while King was chief residentiary. Donne bequeathed to King a portrait of himself dressed in his winding-sheet. Not surprisingly King’s verse is haunted by that of his friend, from whom he received manuscripts, as well as books and themes for sermons. Later in the century there were other close groupings of poets, who, although not linked by direct personal familiarity with Donne and Herbert, were bound to each other by ties of family, friendship, and literary consanguinity. Thomas Stanley was a cousin of Richard Lovelace and the nephew of William Hammond, and became a friend of John Hall, one of the most underrated of the minor metaphysical poets.

Cowley was a friend and eventually elegist of Richard Crashaw. Pockets of metaphysicality also survived in several institutions: it cannot be an accident that Henry King, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, and John Dryden all attended Westminster School. But by the later seventeenth century the bonds of friendship and affinity that had linked Donne and Herbert were in the main replaced by looser ties of literary indebtedness. Declaratory utterances to imagined or absent addressees who are summoned into being by the force of the speaker’s eloquence are common among poems by members of these networks, as are works that explore the balance and imbalance between the demands of the body and the spirit. Direct attempts to persuade, either through comparisons or through arguments that self-consciously display their logical elisions, are also among the most evident legacies left by Donne to his poetical heirs.

No single one of these elements constitutes a metaphysical style, and it would also be wrong to suppose that all of them must be present in a given poem for it to be regarded as belonging to the tradition. It is also incorrect to believe that a poet who sometimes wrote poems in a metaphysical manner was always and in every poem a metaphysical. The metaphysical style was various. It also changed in response to historical events. Donne’s Poems and Herbert’s The Temple were both posthumously printed in 1633. Those publications immediately extended the literary communities of their authors through time and space, and the fact that both volumes were posthumous had a significant effect on the kind of influence they exerted. Donne and Herbert rapidly became models for imitation, but they could also be regarded as ideal representatives of an age that had passed.

Imitation of them could therefore become an act not just of nostalgia, but of politically or theologically motivated nostalgia—as occurs most notably and heavy-handedly in the high Anglican pastiches of Herbert included in The Synagogue by Christopher Harvey, which was regularly bound with The Temple after 1640. In the political and ecclesiastical upheavals of the 1640s the metaphysical style moved on. Imitating Herbert in particular could signal a desire to resist the depredations suffered by the English church during the civil war. Richard Crashaw’s Steps to the Temple (1646) explicitly links itself by its title to Herbert’s volume. The editions of 1646 and 1648 include ‘On Mr. G. Herberts Booke’, which declares ‘Divinest love lyes in this booke’. Henry Vaughan’s preface to the second volume of Silex scintillans (1655) ascribes to Herbert’s influence his conversion from writing secular poems, and he marks the debt by adopting the titles of several poems by Herbert for his own works.

By the second part of Silex these allusions to Herbert carried a political charge, intimating Vaughan’s resistant attitude to the forcible ejection of conservatively minded ministers from churches in his native Wales by commissioners acting under the parliamentary ordinance for the propagation of the gospel. The gradual replacement of networks of closely connected individuals by relationships between dead authors and their readers is perhaps a central reason for the emergence of metaphysics (in the pejorative sense) in later seventeenth-century verse. The two later poets stigmatized by Johnson as ‘metaphysical’, Cleveland and Cowley, knew Donne only as a voice in a book. Efforts to reanimate that voice often show signs of strain. But the move from personal to textual connection between members of the group did not always have undesirable consequences.

Andrew Marvell, who ever since John Aubrey’s ‘Brief life’ has tended to be regarded as an isolated figure in the literary landscape, has perhaps the most distinctive poetic voice of any member of the group. By describing pastoral figures with wounded or sullied innocence who argue perplexedly about their own fate and the unattainability of their own desires, Marvell transformed the metaphysical style into an idiom appropriate for a period of political division and national crisis.

He was not entirely disconnected from its other practitioners: he was at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the same time as Abraham Cowley, and he wrote a commemorative poem for Henry, Lord Hastings, in Lacrymae musarum (1649), a volume that included poems by Dryden as well as John Hall. He and Hall were both among those who composed dedicatory poems for Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta (1648). Like Cleveland, Marvell owed his reputation in the later part of his career largely to his political and satirical poems, but his posthumously published Miscellaneous Poems (1681) shows that a reader of earlier metaphysical verse who actively responded to his changing times could transform the idiom of his predecessors (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Works cited Colin Burrow, ‘Metaphysical poets (act. c.1600–c.1690)’, Oxford Dictionary
of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Feb 2009 [, accessed 5 Aug 2012] Encyclopedia Britannica Wikipedia


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